by Dr Caroline Hendry (PhD Developmental Biology)
The thought of babies dreaming is irresistibly cute. Where might their little brains take them at night? Perhaps flying over gushing waterfalls of sweet milk, or clambering over soft, warm skin that smells like Mummy. All that activity – the twitching, the eye movement, the sighs and exclamations – suggests something is going on. But can babies really dream the same way we do? And if they do dream, what are they seeing?
Understanding sleep and dreams
You’ve probably heard about REM sleep. REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement; so called because the eyes move about rapidly underneath the eyelids during this phase of sleep. REM sleep is where dreams are made - literally. It is the phase of sleep that you are in when you are dreaming. The other phase of sleep, called non-REM sleep, is divided into various stages. Stage 1 is the lightest, a sort of snooze that is easily disturbed. As you drift deeper into sleep you progress gradually through Stages 2 and 3, before arriving finally at Stage 4, which is that deep, delicious, groggy sleep (sidenote: in the US Stages 3 and 4 are simply rolled into Stage 3 – there is no Stage 4). But as sweet as Stage 4 is, you can’t stay here; gradually you come back up through the stages of sleep all the way back to Stage 1. Then follows a brief period of REM sleep, and the dreaming begins.
Dream fact: babies spend more time in REM than us!
So if REM is when dreaming occurs, then do babies experience REM? The answer is yes. Big time! While we spend approximately 20% of our entire sleep period in REM sleep, babies will spend up to a whopping 50% of their sleep in REM. That’s almost eight hours of dream sleep. So what’s going on?
Baby dreams: the big unknown
Despite the fact that babies spend so much time in REM sleep, we still don’t know for sure whether they actually dream. The research community is somewhat divided over this one. Some, like psychologist David Foulkes, have suggested that because babies have such limited experiences to draw from, the first part of their lives is essentially dreamless. This theory is based around the observation that we usually dream about what is familiar to us – people we know, places we have been and so forth. If babies haven’t had these experiences, then how can they dream about them?
But not everyone agrees with this theory. After all, babies do experience things, albeit at a much more simple level. According to Dr Jodi Mindell, associate director of The Sleep Centre at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, if babies do dream, their dreams “probably consist of imagery without any dialogue”. So for example, a still image of something they have seen that day– a toy, a certain shape, perhaps even a face. It is unlikely that any dialogue takes place, since babies don’t yet have language. But a baby’s world is filled with just as much dream-worthy stimulus as ours is, relative to their ability to understand it. And if our dreams can be considered a way to process daily life, then why wouldn’t babies need to do the same?
Baby dreams: the verdict
The jury is still out on whether babies dream, and if so, what these dreams consist of. But given the vast amount of time spent in REM “dream” sleep, the abundance of stimulus in the world around them, and the absence of any reason why babies wouldn’t dream, it seems logical to conclude that babies do indeed dream. But whatever dreams they might have are likely to be quite different from ours; less complicated and dramatic, lacking the kind of “storyline” and “characters” that our dreams tend to have. If they exist, baby dreams are probably very simple; a reflection of their limited understanding of the world around them.
You can read more about Dr Caroline Hendry here
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