Do Babies Dream or Have Nightmares?

You can’t help but wonder: Do babies dream? The answer isn’t as clear as we’d like it to be, but here’s what we do know about babies and dreams.

You can't help but wonder: Do babies dream? The answer isn't as clear as we'd like it to be, but here's what we do know about babies and dreams.

Have you ever been stirred by your baby screaming, only to find that he’s still sound asleep when you get to his room? If you cosleep with your little one, you may have even had the pleasure of watching them twitch and giggle while they sleep. It makes you wonder: Do babies dream?

Let’s talk about it, plus answer:

  • When do babies start dreaming?
  • What do babies dream about?
  • Can babies have nightmares?
  • Can you tell if your baby is dreaming?

Do Babies Dream?

There isn’t a simple answer to this one. According to The Atlantic, research on the topic is limited, largely because the use of brain-scanning machines on babies is not an easy feat. It’s a struggle because of their small size and constant movement, but there are also ethical questions about putting a vulnerable infant in an MRI scanner (source). Plus, we obviously can’t ask babies if they had a dream.

Because of this, researchers have to depend on adult dream research, observational studies, and well-formed hypotheses. And, as you’ll see, this can lead to differing opinions.

Do babies dream? Why some experts say yes…

According to the New York Times, Dr. Charles P. Pollak, the Director of the Center for Sleep Medicine in New York, says the fact that babies enter REM—the state of sleep where vivid dreams begin—is proof enough that babies do dream.

If that’s the case, babies spend about 50 percent of their sleep in REM state, compared to 25 percent for adults, leading us to believe that babies actually dream more than adults! (source)

Do babies dream? Why some experts say no…

There are, however, some neuroscientists who don’t believe that REM in babies directly correlates to dreaming. They hypothesize that newborns and infants haven’t had enough experiences or acquired the capacity to imagine things visually and spatially while they sleep.

Psychologist David Foulkes believes that, for babies, REM has less to do with dreaming and more to do with brain development. Instead, experts say that deep state of sleep allows babies brains to build pathways, become integrated and, later, develop language.

If Babies Don’t Dream, When Do They Start to Dream?

Researchers who say babies don’t dream believe children start to dream the way adults do around the age of 4 or 5. But even then, these experts believe the dreams are devoid of characters or emotions. They say the real dreaming (the ones filled with unicorns who swim and monsters who have tea parties) don’t begin until about 7 or 8 years old. (Although my 5 year old tells me about her vivid, scary dreams! ?)

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What Do Babies Dream About?

If babies do dream the way adults do, what babies dream about is even tougher to determine. Once again, we cannot ask a baby what they dreamed about the night before.

There is some evidence in adult dream research, however, that says the direction of the eye movement corresponds to the content of the dream, and some researchers say this could translate to babies.

  • If the eyes move side to side, baby may be dreaming about something lateral, like crawling through a field.
  • If the eyes move up and down, baby may be dreaming of something vertical, like looking up at a jungle gym or maybe even flying up the stairs.

Can Babies Have Nightmares?

We’ve all wondered what’s going on in that head of theirs when they wake up in the middle of the night screaming. Is it more than just waking up to a dark room? Is baby having nightmares?

Experts say it’s unlikely that babies have nightmares. As discussed above, even if babies dream, they aren’t likely to dream the way older children and adults do. (source)

Instead, baby may be experiencing:

  • Confusional events: This happens when your baby is coming out of a deep sleep and transitioning to the next sleep cycle. This might cause baby to feel confused and disoriented, with incoherent speech, and possibly moaning or crying. (source) This is not a nightmare, because it has nothing to do with a scary dream; it is simply the act of waking up for a brief period of time before entering the next sleep cycle.
  • Sleep terrors: Night or sleep terrors occur approximately 90 minutes into sleep and are characterized by screaming, increased heart rate, dilated pupils, and appearing awake. These reactions are caused by an overstimulated central nervous system—sometimes a result of stress, fever, sleep deprivation, or certain medications. (source, source) If a child is affected by night terrors, this typically doesn’t happen until after 18 months of age. (source)

How to Tell If Your Baby Is Dreaming

Ok, so you can’t exactly tell whether that smirk means your baby is dreaming, but there are telltale signs that your baby has entered REM—the time in which they might be dreaming.

REM stands for rapid eye movements, so when you see baby’s little eyes batting fast, you can bet they have entered REM.

Other signs your baby has entered REM include:

  • Fast and irregular breathing
  • Increased heart rate
  • Changes in body temperature
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Twitching of the face and limbs

(source)

How About You?

The research in this field is limited, but so many moms are curious to know if their babies dream or have nightmares. What do you think: Do babies dream? Share with us in the comments below!

Genevieve Howland

About the Author

Genevieve Howland is a childbirth educator and breastfeeding advocate. She is the bestselling author of The Mama Natural Week-by-Week Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth and creator of the Mama Natural Birth Course. A mother of three, graduate of the University of Colorado, and YouTuber with over 85,000,000 views, she helps mothers and moms-to-be lead healthier and more natural lives.

3 Comments

  1. I believe babies dream about their experiences and the emotions they have felt. They are experiencing so many new things and exploring so much, it would be hard to believe their developing minds would not sort and process during REM. I think it could be scary or exciting for baby as their developing minds sort and decipher what happens throughout their days.

  2. I don’t care what the experts say. I know my baby better than they do. My baby has displayed signs of dreams and nightmares since she was 2-3 mos old.
    She would (and currently does at 8 mos old) twitch, smile, laugh, cry, talk, and whine in her sleep. She co-slept with us until she was 4-5 mos old, and now sleeps in her crib in our room.
    I wouldn’t doubt that they dream from when they’re within the womb ?

  3. My 2 year old wakes up from bad dreams, and can recall them to me later that day. I believe babies dream since we have co-slept with both my children, and I’ve seen them twitch, smile and laugh in their sleep 🙂


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