There is compelling evidence that babies dream, given that infants and newborns spend up to 50% of their sleeping time in REM sleep (the stage of sleep in which dreams occur. REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement, and, as the name indicates, is characterized by the eyes moving rapidly under closed eyelids. It is possible to see if someone is in REM sleep just by watching them, though obviously most parents choose to spend the precious time of their baby’s sleep getting things done that they can’t when the baby is awake, or even sleeping themselves, rather than sitting and watching their baby sleep to observe the REM cycles.
What Is Your Baby Dreaming?
But what do babies dream about? Research done on infants’ brainwaves during REM sleep indicates that brain activity is different between babies’ REM and adults’ REM cycles. This is not at all surprising, when you consider that babies’ brains are also not fully developed. Dreams are often intimately connected to motion, and if you learn a new physical skill you are likely to dream about it as your brain reviews how to do it until you know it well.
Babies, of course, are learning new motions all the time, as they work to gain basic motion control from the time they are born. These skills are likely to populate babies’ dreams, and in fact their capacity to dream may increase as they gain basic motor skills and are able to move on to more physical activities. Recent brain research indicates that gross muscle activity is profoundly important for mental activities such as memory and information analysis, as researchers study the aging process. Though we cannot interview infants to find out what they dream, we can speculate that gaining these muscle skills also affects brain activity and, by extension, dreams, in the same way.
Dreaming During REM Sleep
During REM, the brain works on mental imagery, which is extremely important for cognitive development. In fact, researchers speculate that the reason babies spend so much time in REM sleep is because of the importance of REM sleep in brain development. In other words, if a baby is not able to get enough sleep, his or her brain simply will not develop in the way it needs to. Of course, this does not mean that parents should worry if their baby does not sleep for long stretches. Infant REM periods may be very short, sometimes even as short as a minute or two, and they may move between sleep stages quite rapidly.
This makes them more likely to wake up as they move between these sleep stages, especially if they are uncomfortable or cold. To help a small infant sleep, it’s important to make sure baby is warm enough. Since babies cannot regulate their own internal temperature until they are several months old, baby wearing and skin-to-skin is one of the best ways to help a newborn sleep well and get enough REM sleep, since Mom’s or Dad’s body heat warms Baby up and helps Baby stay asleep.
Babies Dreams are Not Complex
Babies do not have the capacity for complex dreams, simply because they do not have the brain development for it. Adults may dream of relationship issues or financial worries; babies, obviously, are not going to have these dreams. So what is it that babies are dreaming about when they wake up startled or frightened? Babies have their own things to worry about, simple as they may seem to us. Being left alone, being hungry, or being cold are very real fears for babies. Remember that in human evolution, a baby left alone was a baby that was likely to starve or be eaten by a wild animal. Humans did not evolve to put our young in cribs and leave them to sleep alone in their own rooms. Newborn babies cannot understand that they live in the modern world and that there is a baby monitor that Mommy can use to make sure that they are safe. All a newborn baby knows is that they are alone, and that being alone means being in danger.
When a baby stirs from sleep and finds himself or herself alone, this is almost certainly going to produce crying and fear. If this happens habitually, this is likely to become part of Baby’s dreams, until their little brain works through the fear and realizes, over months, that they are not actually in danger from sleeping alone. Hunger is similar, from an evolutionary point of view. In a hunter-gatherer society, babies who are always with their mothers have no reason to ever be hungry – there is a delicious cafeteria open 24 hours a day for them. Many parents in the modern world schedule their babies’ feedings on the advice of their pediatricians.
To a newborn, who only has the instincts passed down through evolution, not being fed when hungry means that Mamma is away, and Baby is in great danger. This is another fear that the brain works through during dreams, until it learns that there is no danger, and that food will be given at the proper time.
Babies can Be Afraid in a Dream
This is certainly not to say that parenting methods such as baby wearing and feeding on demand will prevent your baby from ever having nightmares. There are still always some dangers or fears for the baby’s brain to work through. The cold surprise of a diaper change may be the subject of a dream, or the coughing and spluttering of a breastfeeding baby whose mother has an overactive milk letdown. In fact, as the baby grows, exploring the world will always come with its own set of dangers and surprises, giving Baby plenty of food for dreams and nightmares. When we see a baby wake up from a nightmare, it is easy to ask, “What can you possibly have to be scared of? You have everything you could possibly want given to you.” It is important to remember that this baby is new here, and that everything is strange and must be evaluated as dangerous or safe, and that REM is by and large where that process happens.