What Do Babies Dream About?
5 min read
Last Modified 20 November 2023
For those who are new to parenthood, you may be surprised by just how much babies sleep. And that may lead you to wonder whether your little one has dreams, and if so, what do babies dream about? Dreams occur during a part of our sleep cycle that’s called Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and infants spend twice as much time in REM sleep as adults.
It’s fair to assume that babies have tonnes of dreams when spending so much time sleeping. But going beyond mere assumption, experts still know little about what happens in babies’ brains while they sleep.
Although babies spend half of their sleep in REM, neuroscientists believe that it serves a completely different purpose than dreaming. Research shows that when babies are in REM, it allows their brains to develop pathways and connections. This helps infants to convert their experiences and observations into lasting memories and skills and eventually helps them learn languages.
Because dreams are formed from the visual images that humans experience during their waking realities, it’s unlikely that babies dream the same as adults. Technically, babies are dreaming, however, because they have such little emotional and sensory experience to draw from, there isn’t a lot of material to transform into anything visual.
In the 1960s, journalist Alice Robb explains in her book Why We Dream how psychologist David Foulkes theorised that children tend not to remember their dreams before the age of 9 years. In his lab, he would let kids fall asleep and then wake them three times a night to ask what they recalled.
He continued his research into children’s dreaming over the decades and in his 2002 book, Children’s Dreaming and the Development of Consciousness, his findings weren’t all that shocking. He concluded that humans are dreamless in their first few years of life and that exactly what babies and children see while dreaming depends on their age.
Foulkes found that children don’t start dreaming until they’re about 2 years old (toddler stage) and can imagine their surroundings visually and spatially. Toddlers tend to dream of animals, people eating, and familiar daily sights. According to Foulkes,
Children’s dream life…seems to be similar to their waking imagination and narration
He continues to explain that typically at this age the dreams are static and plain, with no characters that move or act, few emotions, and no memories.
A child between the ages of 5-9 years begins seeing moving images and characters in action and dreams start to include multiple events strung together.
Children at this age also start to develop a greater ability to remember their dreams, however, this is not always the case. When roused during REM sleep, 25% of children in Foulkes’ studies had no recollection of dreaming until they were the age of 9.
It isn’t until around age 7 or so that humans start to have graphic, story-like dreams, where children appear as central characters in their dreams. Dream narratives become more complex and longer and not only do children dream up the action as it unfolds, but they also have thoughts and feelings within the dream. This phase of life is also when children tend to develop a clear sense of their own identity and how they fit into the world around them.
Dr Professor Greene believes ‘dreams help babies make sense of their experiences’. He adds
While our baby can’t tell you what they’re dreaming about, there are clues about the dreams they’re having. The big clue is how your baby behaves when they wake up. If they’re happy and smiling, they’ve probably had a good dream. If they’re fussy and crying, they might have been processing less happy experiences – maybe being hungry or when they didn’t like the way her Babygro felt.
Because your baby’s brain isn’t developed enough and doesn’t visually dream yet, we can assume that babies don’t have nightmares. However, babies can start having night terrors as early as 18 months. Nightmares tend to stem from trauma, stress, or an overactive imagination.
Actual nightmares might start between the ages of 2 to 4 years. Unfortunately, you won’t know which one your child is experiencing until they get old enough to verbally communicate the details
Although, Kelly Bulkeley, a psychologist, cited evidence suggesting that dreams serve as the body’s instinctive mechanism for protecting itself from hypothetical dangers. With our ancestors, short life spans and constant danger made this dreaming mechanism an advantage to help stimulate threatening events and to help to avoid those threats. In this case, nightmares can happen because of natural selection. However, a baby’s nightmares won’t be scary or visual at this point, it’s just another tool to help their brain develop and help them learn potential threats.
You may not know what your little one is dreaming about, or even if they are, as you hear sighs and grunting or see their eyelids flutter. But now you know that while they may be asleep, their brains are hard at work learning and developing.
Sleep during the first weeks and months of life helps your baby’s brain grow and process information. At any age, sleep helps consolidate memory, which helps us integrate our experiences and increases our knowledge. However, if your baby seems to be in a stressful state while sleeping or is upset when waking, there may be other factors at play.