Your baby learns more in her first few years than at any other time in her life. And with your help, she’s making connections all the time. But what exactly is she taking in while she sleeps? And could those dreams really affect her life as an adult? Learn more about the cognitive development that happens while babies are asleep
Nothing appears more peaceful than a sleeping baby. But behind that serene little expression, are fantastic dramas unfolding, like theater performances behind closed stage curtains? Or is the stage vacant?
According to the psychologist David Foulkes, one of the world’s leading experts on pediatric dreaming, people often mistakenly equate their babies’ ability to perceive with an ability to dream. “If an organism gives evidence that it can perceive a reality, then we are prone to imagine that it can dream one as well,” Foulkes wrote in “Children’s Dreaming and the Development of Consciousness” (Harvard University Press, 2002). But considering babies’ limited pool of experiences and their brains’ immaturity, Foulkes and other neuroscientists think they are actually dreamless for the first few years of life.
That’s in spite of the fact that, from birth onward, sleeping babies enter the REM (rapid eye movement) sleep phase — the one in which adults dream. And boy, do they: Newborns spend half their sleep time in REM, accompanied by jerking eyeballs, twitching bodies and a characteristic saw-toothed pattern on brain scans. For comparison, adults spend just one quarter of their sleeping time in REM and the rest in the dreamless non-REM phase, marked by slowly varying brain waves. If babies did dream during REM, then they would dream for the equivalent of a full eight-hour workday. That would be a lot of mileage to get out of the few images they’ve collected of their bedroom, toys and parents’ faces.
Instead, neuroscientists believe REM sleep serves a completely different role in newborns and infants: It allows their brains to build pathways, become integrated and, later, helps them develop language. (Similarly, juvenile birds learn songs during REM sleep.) While all that grunt work is going on, they lack the head space and the ability to imagine themselves as the heroes of baby adventures, or to dream up fantasy toys.
Dreaming, neuroscientists think, is a cognitive process that arises in early childhood, once children have acquired the capacity to imagine things visually and spatially. According to research by Foulkes and his colleagues, even children at the ripe old age of 4 or 5 typically describe dreams that are static and plain, with no characters that move or act, few emotions and no memories.
Vivid dreams with structured narratives set in at age 7 or 8, around the same time children develop a clear understanding of their own identity. Researchers think self-awareness is necessary for the insertion of the self into dreams. In fact, the amount of self-knowledge a child possesses — her understanding that she would be the same person even if she had a different name, for instance, and that she is the same person as she was when she was a baby — strongly correlates with the vibrancy and amount of plot structure in that child’s dreams.
When Foulkes’ findings on dreaming in children are related to infants, neuroscientists come to the rather disappointing conclusion that babies don’t dream much of anything. Their brains are otherwise engaged.
When Do Babies Start Dreaming?
So, when do babies start dreaming? The general consensus is that infants and babies start dreaming around the age of two. Psychologist David Foulkes studies children (from tots to teens) to bring the secrets of their dreams to the light of day. In his lab, he lets kids fall asleep and then wakes them 3 times a night—sometimes in REM and sometimes in NREM—and asks them to describe what they recall.
Foulkes’ findings are surprising…in how unsurprising they are. Basically, little kids have little dreams. But exactly what kids see while dreaming depends on their age. As children develop and grow, their dreams do too.
Toddler dreams are usually just snapshots, looking much more like a slideshow than a movie, when compared to the dreams of adults. They heavily feature animals and other familiar sights, like images of people eating. According to Foulkes, “Children’s dream life…seems to be similar to their waking imagination and narration,” he explains in his study, Children’s Dreaming and the Development of Consciousness. “Animals carry human concerns and readily become objects of identification.”
Kids ages 5-9 begin seeing moving images and characters in action. Dreams now include multiple events strung together, one after the other. Kids start developing greater ability to remember dreams. Still, that’s not always the case: When roused during REM sleep, 25% of the kids in Foulkes’ studies had no recollection of dreaming, a trend that continues through age 9.
Generally around age 8, children appear as central characters in their dreams. Dream narratives become more complex and longer. Not only do children dream up the action as it unfolds, they also have thoughts and feelings within the dream.
Final Thoughts: What Do Babies Dream About?
You no longer have to wonder, what do babies dream about anyway? It turns out that infants and babies don’t start having vivid dreams until around the age of two. Only when their brains develop well past this stage, will babies start having dreams and nightmares. And even later to retain them in their memory. So, if your baby seems to be in a stressful state while sleeping or is upset upon waking, there may be other factors at play [Read: the fourth trimester]. SNOO Smart Sleeper responds to these episodes and keeps babies calm by mimicking the sensations of the womb. Learn more about SNOO here.
ABOUT DR. HARVEY KARP
Dr. Harvey Karp, one of America’s most trusted pediatricians, is the founder of Happiest Baby and the inventor of the groundbreaking SNOO Smart Sleeper. After years of treating patients in Los Angeles, Dr. Karp vaulted to global prominence with the release of the bestselling Happiest Baby on the Block and Happiest Toddler on the Block. His celebrated books and videos have since become standard pediatric practice, translated into more than 20 languages and have helped millions of parents. Dr. Karp’s landmark methods, including the 5 S’s for soothing babies, guide parents to understand and nurture their children and relieve stressful issues, like new-parent exhaustion, infant crying, and toddler tantrums.