Dreams of Babies

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In a study on babies and dreaming, it was learned that babies spend about 66% of their sleeping time in the REM state. That is quite a bit of dreaming, considering that the average adult spends 15-20% of their sleep time in the dreaming stage.  Dream researchers believe that there is a correlation between REM sleep and brain development. While still in the womb, the fetus is already spending a significant amount of time in REM sleep. At only 30 weeks, the fetus spends nearly 24 hours in the REM state.
Premature babies also spend  up to 80% of their sleep in the REM state. As babies mature, their REM sleep decreases. It drops to 50% in the full term baby and down to 35% in a one year old.  This finding supports the notion that REM sleep is important in the mental development of the baby.  Dreaming may be seen as a way of “exercising” the mind and stimulating it. As babies get older, they will be able get mental stimulation from their surroundings and outside environment.

Dreams of Babies
Dreams of Babies
It is difficult to know what babies are dreaming about, but their dreams are probably triggered mainly by physical sensations. As babies continue to develop, visual images and sounds begin to play a role in dreams.

Babies spend about 50 percent of sleep time in active/REM sleep—the stage characterized by vivid dreams—compared with 25 percent for adults. So it’s possible that infants have more, or longer, nighttime adventures than their parents do. Here, a dream debriefing:

What do babies dream about?

We can’t know exact subject matter, but their dreams are most likely silent, says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., the associate director of the Sleep Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “Since infants don’t have language, their dreams probably consist of imagery without any dialogue.”

What about nightmares?

Beyond a healthy wariness of strangers, kids don’t develop real fears until age 2 or 3. “Until then, it’s very unlikely that a baby would have a scary dream,” says Mindell.

What’s a night terror?

Although these unexplained partial arousals between sleep stages may cause your child to shriek and thrash about, she is not having a bad dream. After a few minutes, your baby will settle back down (in fact, she probably never woke up at all). The best thing to do? Nothing. Trying to console her may only prolong the episode.

…and more with dreams of babies

Nothing appears more peaceful than a sleeping baby. But behind that serene little expression, are fantastic dramas unfolding, like theater performances behind closed stage curtains? Or is the stage vacant?

According to the psychologist David Foulkes, one of the world’s leading experts on pediatric dreaming, people often mistakenly equate their babies’ ability to perceive with an ability to dream. “If an organism gives evidence that it can perceive a reality, then we are prone to imagine that it can dream one as well,” Foulkes wrote in “Children’s Dreaming and the Development of Consciousness” (Harvard University Press, 2002). But considering babies’ limited pool of experiences and their brains’ immaturity, Foulkes and other neuroscientists think they are actually dreamless for the first few years of life.

That’s in spite of the fact that, from birth onward, sleeping babies enter the REM (rapid eye movement) sleep phase — the one in which adults dream. And boy, do they: Newborns spend half their sleep time in REM, accompanied by jerking eyeballs, twitching bodies and a characteristic saw-toothed pattern on brain scans. For comparison, adults spend just one quarter of their sleeping time in REM and the rest in the dreamless non-REM phase, marked by slowly varying brain waves. If babies did dream during REM, then they would dream for the equivalent of a full eight-hour workday. That would be a lot of mileage to get out of the few images they’ve collected of their bedroom, toys and parents’ faces. [ Why Don’t We Remember Being Babies?]

Instead, neuroscientists believe REM sleep serves a completely different role in newborns and infants: It allows their brains to build pathways, become integrated and, later, helps them develop language. (Similarly, juvenile birds learn songs during REM sleep.) While all that grunt work is going on, they lack the head space and the ability to imagine themselves as the heroes of baby adventures, or to dream up fantasy toys.

Dreaming, neuroscientists think, is a cognitive process that arises in early childhood, once children have acquired the capacity to imagine things visually and spatially. According to research by Foulkes and his colleagues, even children at the ripe old age of 4 or 5 typically describe dreams that are static and plain, with no characters that move or act, few emotions and no memories.

Vivid dreams with structured narratives set in at age 7 or 8, around the same time children develop a clear understanding of their own identity. Researchers think self-awareness is necessary for the insertion of the self into dreams. In fact, the amount of self-knowledge a child possesses — her understanding that she would be the same person even if she had a different name, for instance, and that she is the same person as she was when she was a baby — strongly correlates with the vibrancy and amount of plot structure in that child’s dreams.

When Foulkes’ findings on dreaming in children are related to infants, neuroscientists come to the rather disappointing conclusion that babies don’t dream much of anything. Their brains are otherwise engaged.
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