Every time you see those little eyelids flutter or those lips smile in sleep, chances are you cannot help but wonder if your little one is in the middle of a dream. Babies spend a substantial part of a day sleeping. They usually go through the same stages of sleep as adults, including the stage in which we see dreams. Does it mean babies dream, too? What do babies dream about?
Read on to know more about whether babies dream, when they start dreaming, and how to tell if your little one is dreaming.
Do Babies Have Dreams?
It is essential to understand babies’ sleep patterns before learning if they dream. Babies sleep for 16 to 18 hours out of the 24 hours of a day (1). Their sleep is divided into two main stages — non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, similar to those seen in adults. REM sleep, also known as active sleep in babies, is marked by rapid eye movement under the closed eyelids. The brain activity, blood pressure, and heart rate in REM sleep is similar to that in the state of wakefulness.
Dreams can occur at any stage of sleep but mostly during REM sleep (2). Babies spend equal time in REM and NREM sleep (3). Since babies spend a larger chunk of their sleep in the REM stage when compared to adults, researchers believe that infants experience dreams. REM sleep also plays a functional role in babies since it is noted to help in the maturation of neurological pathways and healthy brain development (4).
When Do Babies Start Dreaming?
It is not known when babies begin dreaming. Studies have noted that babies display REM and NREM sleep even in the fetal stage. A fetus’ brain waves may display notable transitions between NREM and the REM sleep inside the womb after seven months of gestation (5). Although it is not known if fetuses dream, the presence of REM sleep during the fetal stage may suggest that babies are capable of dreaming right from birth.
What Do Babies Dream About?
There is no precise way to tell what babies dream. Also, since babies have limited communication skills, there is no way an infant can describe their dreams. Nevertheless, research on REM sleep could suggest some possibilities.
REM sleep is marked by increased activity in the hippocampus, the part of the brain believed to be responsible for processing and retrieving memories of events we experience while awake (6). It is also suggested that dreams often reactivate visions or virtual experiences of recently learned things (7). Therefore, a baby’s dreams might consist of their recent experiences or interactions with people, toys, objects, and places.
The limited life experience of a baby might cause them to seldom have complex, abstract dreams. A baby’s dreams might be more close to reality, consisting of people they often see, such as parents, objects they often use, such as toys, and places they often visit, such as a garden.
Possible Signs Your Baby Is Dreaming
There are no specific signs that indicate a baby is dreaming. The following actions usually suggest REM sleep and may also indicate that the baby is dreaming (8).
It is common for babies to twitch and jerk their arms during REM sleep. It is usually noted that babies twitch the muscles that are about to become more developed. Babies may also move parts of the body that are about to mark a developmental milestone.
For instance, babies who are about to begin supporting their head are likely to display neck twitching. Babies begin holding their heads steady without support by four months of age (9). Once a baby attains this milestone, they are unlikely to display neck twitching.
Twitching usually indicates REM sleep and may indicate dreaming, which is often associated with the reorganization of memories of experiences in the hippocampus. It may pave the way for the development of new skills since REM sleep is also noted to improve neurological pathways.
2. Eye movement
The eye movement during REM sleep is said to be affected by brain activity, which is usually similar to that in the state of wakefulness (6). The eye movement may also indicate that the baby is “seeing” dreams.
Visual memory could be processed during REM sleep, and the baby might have dreams associated with things they see during waking hours, although there is no precise way to confirm it. A baby might smile during REM sleep when having dreams associated with pleasant visions, such as parents or favorite toys.
4. Changes in breathing
It is common for babies to breathe irregularly during REM sleep. Babies often display rapid bursts of breathing, followed by normal breathing. It is also common for the baby to show a pause in breathing for five to ten seconds. This periodic breathing in babies is a strong indicator of the onset of REM sleep and might indicate that the baby is dreaming or about to begin dreaming.
Do Babies Have Nightmares?
Babies may experience nightmares, which usually occur during REM sleep (10). Nightmares are often associated with stress, trauma, or unpleasant situations experienced during waking hours. Babies who experience nightmares may wake up abruptly, cry, and may seem difficult to soothe back to sleep.
Some babies may experience night terrors, which could be mistaken for nightmares. Night terrors may cause similar signs as nightmares but usually occur during the NREM stage of sleep. The baby may also not wake up abruptly during a night terror, which can last for several minutes. You may learn more about the causes and signs of nightmares and night terrors in babies here.
Does Dreamless Sleep Affect The Baby’s Development?
Dreams can occur during any stage of sleep; thus, there is no true dreamless sleep (11). Nevertheless, if the baby does experience dreamless sleep, it is unlikely to cause any adverse effects. It is the sleep that matters the most for the baby’s health, rather than the presence of dreams.
Adequate sleep helps improve a baby’s attention, memory, behavior, and learning skills. It also improves overall physical health (12). Therefore, parents must focus on ensuring that the baby gets enough sleep. If the baby has disturbed sleep but no underlying problem and you suspect nightmares or night terrors, consult a pediatrician.
A baby’s dreams may not be as vivid as those of adults, but the dream phase of their sleep could play a significant role in their physical and mental development. Maintain a comfortable sleep environment for your baby so that they get sound sleep, which might even help them see some sweet dreams.
2. Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep; National Institutes of Health
3. Stages of Newborn Sleep; American Academy of Pediatrics
4. Hikohiro Okawa et al., Eye movement activity in normal human fetuses between 24 and 39 weeks of gestation; PLOS One; NCBI
5. Baby’s First Dreams: Sleep Cycles Of The Fetus; American Institute of Physics; ScienceDaily
6. Perrine M. Ruby, Experimental Research on Dreaming: State of the Art and Neuropsychoanalytic Perspectives; Frontiers of Psychology; NCBI
7. Learning while you sleep: Dream or reality?; Harvard Medical School
8. What’s going on when babies twitch in their sleep?; The University of Iowa
9. Important Milestones: Your Baby By Four Months; CDC
10. Parasomnias & Disruptive Sleep Disorders; Cleveland Clinic
11. F. Pagel, Nightmares and Disorders of Dreaming; American Family Physician
12. Rachel Dawkins, The Importance of Sleep for Kids; John Hopkins Medicine