Do Babies Dream? What Do Babies Dream About?

Do Babies Dream?

Ever held a newborn or young baby in your arms and watched him sleep? Many babies are pretty “expressive” sleepers – during deep sleep, they twitch and jerk, they grunt and grimace, they make faces, they smile. All of that expression can make parents wonder, “Is my baby dreaming?”

And it’s a valid question! You dream, after all – why not your baby?

In today’s post, we’ll take a look at just this question: do babies dream? We’ll hear from some of the experts, and then open it up to you, to share your thoughts and experiences!

Baby Dreams: A Background Lesson On Sleep Cycles

First, though, let’s go over a little background info. In order to understand dreams, you first have to understand how sleep cycles work. Human sleep is divided up into 2 cycles – REM (which stands for rapid-eye movement) and Non-REM. Throughout the night, you and I cycle through Non-REM and REM sleep. We have a period (usually 90 minutes) of Non-REM sleep (this tends to be deep sleep, and our body uses it to rebuild and repair tissue, to strengthen our immune systems, etc.), followed by a short period of REM sleep, in which our sleep is more restless. Our REM cycles lengthen as the night goes on – our last REM cycle is up to an hour.

Why all this talk about REM vs. Non-REM? Because we dream during REM sleep. What does this have to do with our babies? Well, simply put, your baby spends a lot more time in REM sleep than you do – her sleep cycles are a lot different than yours! While you spend about 20% of your night in REM sleep, your baby will spend up to 50% (maybe even more, in the newborn stage) of sleep in REM sleep.

(Side note: REM sleep tends to be lighter, more active sleep than non-REM sleep. We wake more easily in REM sleep, as well as in the first two stages of non-REM sleep. This is one answer to why your baby wakes frequently at night, and has naps that are too short!)

So, based on this – it’s certainly possible for our babies to dream. Goodness knows they have enough REM sleep for it!!

Do Babies Dream?

Of course, no one can answer this question with absolute certainty, because…well, because babies can’t talk! However, experts have suggested theories as to whether or not babies dream. On the one hand, some experts point out that babies must dream, given how much time they spend in REM sleep. Because the capacity for dreaming is there, these experts say that it’s logical to assume that babies likely do dream – and that just because our babies can’t tell us about their dreams, that doesn’t mean that the dreams aren’t happening!

On the other hand, other experts are quick to point out that babies probably don’t dream – at least, they don’t dream in the way we do. If you think about your dreams, they are most likely dramas or stories, that involve a chain of events (either past events from your life, or events you’ve read about or heard about), and that involve you, or people in your life. These dreams have settings, they have a storyline, they contains dialogue….but some experts are quick to point out that babies don’t have the mental skills necessary to construct such dreams. Babies don’t have language skills, for one thing; babies also don’t have a strong sense of themselves, of other people, or of objects around them. So how, these experts ask, could babies dream?

Another point these experts point out is that it’s not really fair to compare a baby’s REM totals to an adult’s, because what’s happening during those REM cycles is so different. A baby experiences a truly vast amount of growth and development during the first few years of life – and much of it happens during sleep. During REM sleep, a baby’s brain is busy developing new neural pathways, and all that learning and growing and developing leaves very little brainpower left over for dreaming. (It also disrupts sleep in a big way, and can cause sleep regressions – but that’s another topic for another article! 😉 )

What Do Babies Dream About?

So, if you’re one who believes that babies do, in fact, dream, what might they be dreaming about? Well, most of us would probably agree that we dream about those things with which we’ve had experience – either events we’ve experienced, or events that we have read about, or heard about.

So, if we apply that logic to babies, baby dreams probably include a lot of pooping, sucking, and crying – at least at first! As a baby grows, however, and becomes more aware of her surroundings, who knows? Maybe the mom and dad show up in her dreams – maybe the dog does, too! 😉

What do you think, parents? Do you believe your baby dreams? Why or why not? Share your thoughts with us!

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  1. Jan says

    Great question, and I love your musings on the subject. Wouldn’t it be fun to know?
    I love your site, and refer my clients to it often! On that note, I have a question to throw out, and would love feedback. Do you think it’s possible that infants have nightmares?

    I had clients whose pediatrician told them that their 3-month-old baby was probably experiencing nightmares when he woke with distressed crying. He was a baby with a lot of tummy bubbles, and, from my observation, he woke often due to the tummy discomfort. When picked up and soothed and burped for a few minutes, he would quickly calm and go back to sleep. If I continued burping him, he would be able to bring up more burps, and be able sleep longer, and extend his naps from 30-45 minutes, to 1 1/2-2 hours. The parents, however, strongly resisted any suggestion that their baby had tummy bubbles or needed burping, so I suspect that the pediatrician wasn’t given the whole story.

    Love to hear others’ thoughts! :)

  2. Anna says

    I’ve had a similar experience. My baby boy is a great sleeper(many thanks to all the useful info on the babysleepsite) In the past week he has got up three times around 2 am crying hysterically. Now I’m a very heavy sleeper so my husband has the monitor closer to his side of the bed, so he’s the one that gets up and goes to him. After I finally wake up to the crying- I also go into the room. Every time my son sees me, he comes to me right away hugs me and stops crying. I then kiss him, put him
    Down and return to bed. He tosses and turns for a minute or two and goes back to sleep.

    What can it be? A nightmare?

  3. Emily DeJeu says

    @ Jan — good question! I don’t know that we’ll ever know for sure, of course – that is, not unless babies start developing the ability to speak a whole lot sooner! 😉 But if we’re making educated guesses…I’d guess probably not, on the nightmares. I think a true nightmare requires a bit of imaginative thinking. Even nightmares about real events have an imaginative quality to them, don’t you think? For example, someone who scares you in real life may show up in your nightmare with claws, or being 9 feet tall, or something. Since newborns aren’t capable of imaginary play yet, I’d venture to say they probably don’t have nightmares. In the case you mention, you’re no doubt spot-on — tummy trouble was probably the cause!

    Thanks for sharing your question and your experience with us, Jan! :)

    @ Anna – you don’t mention how old your child is? You said baby, but then you mention ‘he comes to me’…is your child a toddler? If so, then this may very well be a nightmare. It’s probably not a nightmare if your child is a baby, though…

    Hope this helps!

  4. Melinda says

    I think they do! My son (he will be a year old later this month) sometimes laughs in his sleep, and has been doing so since about 8 or 9 months old! I don’t know if he’s just going over events of the day, or if it is more imaginative (I have no idea when imagination really kicks in). Either way, I’m glad he is laughing, and not crying in his sleep. :)

  5. Emily DeJeu says

    @ Melinda – awww, that sounds so cute! What a sweet memory that will be as he grows :) And yes, you’re right – laughing is VERY preferable to crying!! 😉

    Thanks for taking the time to comment, Melinda!

  6. Rachel says

    We’ve always joked that my baby is having “the milk dream” when he smiles or sucks in his sleep. Seriously, though, there have been a few times that something traumatic happened to him (we had to clip his tongue tie, I dropped him, he was in the car seat for a 9 hour trip) and for a few days afterward he would cry in his sleep. I know he was having “nightmares,” recalling those bad experiences and feelings, even at 2 months old. I felt awful.

  7. Emily DeJeu says

    @rachel – I’m sure the “milk dream” is pretty cute to watch! The sleep-smiles are the best! Though, I’m sure the restless sleep he experienced after some rough times wasn’t so cute.