Do Babies Dream While They're Sleeping?

Have you ever wondered what runs through your little one’s mind while they’re sleeping? Here’s what the experts say about baby dreams.

While watching your little one snooze, you may wonder what's going through their mind. Do those fluttering eyelids, loud sighs, and limb twitches mean they're dreaming? It's comforting to believe they're imagining your warm embrace. However, experts don't know if it's actually possible for newborns or infants to dream, at least not in the visual or thematic way that children and adults do. Keep reading to learn if babies dream and what they might experience during REM sleep.

An image of a baby sleeping.
Getty Images.

Do Babies Dream?

We may never know for sure if babies dream, says Parents advisor Jodi Mindell, Ph.D, associate director of the Sleep Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Dream researchers depend on study volunteers to tell them if, when, and what they dream—and babies aren't quite up to the task.

We do know, however, that adult dreaming mostly occurs during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Infants spend 50 percent of their snooze time in REM, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. That's almost twice as much time as adults spend. "It would be a logical assumption that babies do dream and that it has something to do with their brain development since they spend so much time in this stage of sleep," says Dr. Mindell.

Still, Live Science reports that some neuroscientists doubt babies can dream at all. They claim that infants' brains are too immature to form these abstract thoughts and images. Instead, they believe REM sleep serves a different purpose: allowing the brain to form pathways and promoting cognitive development.

What Do Babies Dream About?

If babies dream, it's hard to imagine the landscape of their dream world since they don't have language or clear concepts of people and things. It's safe to assume, though, that your baby's dreams would look different from your own. They'd probably resemble their real-life experiences, focusing on sensations (like the feel of being held and breastfeeding) or simple visuals (like their parent's face).

Psychologist David Foulkes, an expert on pediatric dreaming and author of Children's Dreaming and the Development of Consciousness, wrote that true dreaming with structured stories might not happen until children are 7 or 9 years old, when they develop self-awareness and better visualization techniques. Toddlers, preschoolers, and younger children may conjure up simple static images while sleeping.

Do Babies Have Nightmares?

Chances are, your baby isn't having nightmares, since they don't grasp the meaning of fear yet. "We suspect bad dreams don't happen until kids are 2 or 3 and have a better notion of being afraid and an active imagination that can conjure up boogeymen," says Dr. Mindell.

Still, it can be disconcerting to watch your baby twitch, make noises, or flail their limbs during their slumber. Experts say not to worry, though. It's actually developmentally appropriate for babies to move around and make sounds while they sleep.

If they're moving around a lot, most likely, what you're seeing is due to the startle reflex. This reflex occurs naturally as babies develop motor skills, is not an indication of any discomfort, and will go away in a few months. Babies also wake up frequently from naps and nighttime sleep, due to hunger, wet or dirty diapers, and simply having a shorter sleep cycle. So, you'll likely see a bit of movement as they come in and out of sleep.

However, if you ever notice anything while your baby is sleeping that worries you or you have any questions or concerns about your baby's sleep, consult their pediatrician.

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