Epilepsy360° – Edition 35: Baby twitches in sleep

Home > Epilepsy360° – Edition 35: Baby twitches in sleep

Baby twitches in sleep – Is it normal?

Article published with permission and courtesy of Sleep Advisor

Parents are often inclined to study their little one’s every movement and take joy in observing minor developments as they grow. Unfortunately, while there are countless exciting moments, raising a baby can often feel like foreign territory, and parents seldom feel prepared for everything. For example, sleep twitches could look unusual and concerning, but they’re usually harmless and indicative of developmental growth.

Occasionally, parents may encounter a legitimate cause for medical concern. Conditions like epilepsy, febrile seizures, or infantile spasms can indicate a serious health issue and immediate need for treatment. However, what most parents witness is often a mere sleep twitch, and, typically, there is a perfectly healthy reason for them occurring.

What is Sleep Twitching?

Sleep twitches, however odd to observe, are entirely normal. Sleep myoclonus is the technical term for the occurrence, which translates to muscle twitching in Greek. If you’ve ever been on the verge of sleep and felt your body jerk suddenly, this startling phenomenon is a form of sleep myoclonus, also categorized as a hypnagogic jerk. Hiccups are also a form of myoclonus.

These incidences can be classified in two ways:

Positive Myoclonus classifies muscle spasms, jerks, or twitches suddenly caused by muscle contractions.

Negative Myoclonus includes muscle jerks, movements, and twitches due to muscle relaxation.

What Causes Babies to Twitch in Their Sleep?

These seemingly meaningless movements have been observed during the REM (rapid eye movement) phase of sleep, which you drift into after going through the four stages of NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. REM sleep is the deepest state of sleep and is when we experience dreams and just about complete body paralysis— except for these spasms and twitches. More on childhood sleep issues can be found at Sleep Advisor. https://www.sleepadvisor.org/family-sleep/

Researchers at the University of Iowa have studied sensorimotor development— and sleep twitches— for two decades. They’ve included body parts that experience these twitches, spasms, and mini jerks into their research, including arms, legs, eyes and eyelids, fingers and toes, mouth, head, cheek, and brows.

After extensive studies, researchers theorize that these twitches we see occurring during the REM sleep phase are related to sensorimotor development. When the body twitches, they believe this is activating brain circuits and essentially teach or allow babies to understand what they can do with their bodies.[1]

This position is more than mere hypothesis. Over the past few years, scientists have begun to observe intriguing relationships between these twitches, spasms, and jerks and the developing coordination and motor skills in babies.

Experts now believe that understanding early sensorimotor development may provide a portal to further clues about neurodevelopmental disorders. Researchers presume that further research on the subject could explain how and why autism and schizophrenia appear in certain individuals.

Is Sleep Twitching Cause for Concern?

In most cases, sleep twitching is not a cause for concern. It isn’t uncommon to hear about parents rushing a perfectly healthy baby to the hospital due to especially pronounced sleep twitches, but these visits are unnecessary in most cases.

In some cases, however, there could be some cases in which medical attention may be necessary, and there are incidences that may be difficult to decipher between normal developmental twitches and more serious movements.

Infantile Spasms

Infantile spasms are a type of seizure that can appear in babies as they first wake up and most often begins between 4 and 7 months of age but can occur anytime within the first few years of life. The seizures look like a series of short spasms, typically about one to two seconds in length, as frequently as 100 spasms a day.[2]

Little ones who suffer from infantile spasms could be at risk for developmental conditions like autism, epilepsy, or possibly intellectual disability. Early treatment is important for controlling and improving the prognosis for these babies. Those who are diagnosed early have better developmental outcomes and also better chances of successfully managing epilepsy.

Febrile Seizures

Convulsions caused by fever and infection are known as febrile seizures. They can appear in otherwise healthy, young children of normal development who haven’t necessarily had previous other neurological symptoms. Febrile seizures do not indicate serious health issues, are often harmless, and only last a couple of minutes.

When these happen, a child will typically lose consciousness and have jerking movements. Some incidences have been recorded where only a child’s limb or one area of their body will twitch or even become very stiff.[3]

Febrile seizures fall into two categories; simple and complex.

Simple febrile seizures commonly affect the entire body, last between a few seconds to 15 minutes, and do not happen again within 24 hours.

Complex febrile seizures typically last longer than 15 minutes and happen more than once within 24 hours. They are commonly confined to only one side of a child’s body.

Epilepsy

Epilepsy is a brain condition in which individuals experience seizures. A seizure happens when a part of the brain erupts in abnormal electrical signals, causing interruptions to normal brain pathways. Anytime a brain signal or connection is disrupted, a seizure may occur.

Issues that may cause a seizure include:

  • Stroke
  • Brain damage or concussion
  • Imbalance of nerve-signaling brain chemicals
  • High fever
  • High or low blood sugar
  • Alcohol
  • Drug withdrawal

Despite these possible causes, in many cases, the cause remains unknown.

When to See a Doctor

For a child experiencing more than a typical developmental twitch or myoclonic jerk, taking your child to the hospital, calling an ambulance, or seeking professional help right away may be critical to their health. Call an ambulance or take your little one to the emergency room if a seizure lasts a prolonged period or appears alongside:

  • Breathing problems
  • Vomiting
  • Neck stiffness
  • Extreme fatigue

Sources

  1. [1]Uiowa. “What’s Going on When Babies Twitch in Their Sleep?” Iowa Now, 25 Aug. 2020, now.uiowa.edu/2016/07/babies-twitch-sleep.
  2. [2]“Infantile Spasms: Boston Children’s Hospital.” Boston Childrens Hospital, www.childrenshospital.org/conditions-and-treatments/conditions/i/infantile-spasms.
  3. [3]“Febrile Seizure.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 24 Feb. 2021, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/febrile-seizure/symptoms-causes/syc-20372522.