Do Babies Dream?

Baby Sleeping in Crib

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Have you ever wondered why your baby smiles in their sleep? Could it be a reflex, or is your little one caught up in a pleasant dream?

The truth is, much is still unknown about what occurs in a baby's mind during sleep. This is, in part, because they lack the communication skills to convey that information to us. Researchers are also still working to understand how babies' brains process information, which is a large factor in why humans dream.

If your baby seems joyful or upset during their slumber, there are likely other factors at play. Let's take a look at your baby's sleep cycle, what we know about dreams, and what information researchers are still working to uncover about babies' subconscious states.

Babies and REM Sleep

Dreams can happen during any stage of sleep, but they're most likely to occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, babies spend up to 50% of their slumber in REM sleep, whereas adults spend approximately 20% of their time asleep in this phase.

What does this say about dreaming? Essentially it means, if babies did dream, they'd spend a lot of time doing it.

Brain waves resembling REM sleep have been observed in the womb between 25 and 28 weeks gestation. Though still inconclusive, researchers speculate this could mean REM sleep begins even before birth.

If babies experience REM sleep, then one might assume they'd also be dreaming. However, researchers say it's not quite that simple. The process of dreaming means being developmentally capable of abstract thinking.

Neuroscientists believe children must first have the ability to imagine things visually and spacially to dream, and babies lack that self-awareness.

Understanding Your Baby's Sleep Behavior

During REM sleep, the body is relaxed, and the brain is active. However, while adults generally remain still during this sleep phase, babies often appear more unsettled. Tossing and turning, or even crying out, may lead parents to question whether their baby is having a bad dream.

The greater likelihood is that your baby is simply developing and learning how their body works or trying to develop new skills. Babies who cry out during sleep may be processing something that occurred earlier, meaning it is more of a memory than a dream.

Moro

Newborns are also born with what is referred to as the Moro—or startle—reflex. This reflex develops between 28 and 32 weeks gestation and generally disappears between 3 and 6 months.

This is an involuntary, protective reflex that causes infants to sudden flail their arms and legs. It may look as though your baby is trying to fend off a dream nemesis, but it's most likely just Moro at work.

Swaddling your baby can help keep this reflex at bay and help your baby get a better night's rest during the early months.

How Circadian Rhythms Affect Sleep

Biological rhythms refer to how our bodies' natural chemistry and functions change throughout a 24-hour cycle. This is sometimes called our bodies' "internal clock."

Of the four biological rhythms, the circadian clock is most closely tied to sleep. According to research published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, newborns gradually develop circadian rhythm components postnatally.

"A rhythm of cortisol develops at 8 weeks of age, melatonin and sleep efficiency develop at approximately 9 weeks, and body temperature rhythm and that of circadian genes develop at 11 weeks," the report states.

Babies wake more frequently because they do not follow the same circadian rhythms as older children and adults. This also explains why they spend more time in the REM sleep phase than in a deep sleep.

Given this information, it would make sense that babies would dream more often than older children and adults since much of their time is spent in dream-friendly REM sleep.

However, research points to the idea that dreaming doesn't begin until children are older, despite getting less REM sleep as time passes. When babies are in REM, they allow their brains to develop pathways, connections, and eventually, learn languages.

When Do Children Begin Dreaming?

Dreams often consist of people and situations we encounter the previous day because their brains are processing that information. For children to dream, they must reimagine the same encounters — something babies are unlikely to achieve with the same complexity. 

According to David Foulkes, a psychologist and one of the world's leading experts on pediatric dreaming, babies' ability to perceive the world around them often causes people to believe they're able to dream mistakenly.

Foulkes' work, "Children's Dreaming and the Development of Consciousness" published by Harvard University Press, noted that if an organism has the ability to perceive reality, then it's very possible that that organism can dream a reality as well.

However, babies' brains lack the maturity and experiences to conjure up dreams, neuroscientists have theorized.

Though we still don't have an exact answer to when people begin to dream, researchers believe children are dreamless until they have a clearer understanding of the world around them.

A Word From Verywell

It's natural to wonder what's going on in your baby's mind as they sleep. After all, babies spend an average of 12-16 hours asleep each day during the first year! While that's a lot of potential dreaming time, research seems to point to the idea that dreams don't begin until later in childhood. 

You may notice your baby tossing and turning in their sleep. This can be a reflex during the first few months or simple unsettledness at night. It might look like your baby is dreaming when this occurs—especially if they cry out—but it's more likely they're working toward reaching a new milestone. 

Essentially, we won't know when our children are truly dreaming until they can convey it to us directly. As always, if you have any concerns about your baby's sleep patterns or habits, contact your healthcare provider for advice. 

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Article Sources
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