What Do Babies Dream About When They Sleep?

Arms are flailing, eyes are twitching and indecipherable groans fill the room.  This may sound like a typical Netflix binge night for some, but it may be “coming soon” to a nursery near you.  Take heart, it may not be the nightmare it looks and sounds like to most parents. The answers to the following common questions regarding baby dreams will put your fears to rest (pun intended 😊).

Do Babies Dream?

Many parents wonder what babies dream about. What is the root of all this nighttime commotion? It’s hard to believe in this information age, but researchers know very little about what goes on in the mind of an infant.  The exact purpose of dreaming isn’t known, but it may be the brain’s way of helping us process our emotions and all that new information.

What Do Researchers Think About Babies and Dreams?

According to psychologist David Foulkes, one of the world's leading experts on pediatric dreaming, babies' limited pool of experiences and their brains' immaturity leads neuroscientists to think infants are dreamless for the first few years of life.  This is good news for parents who have watched their baby’s sleepy struggles and wondered if they were happy or distressed.

What Do Babies Dream About in the Womb?

In the womb, your baby sleeps 90 to 95 percent of the day. Those intrauterine hours snoozing are spent in a combination of deep sleep and REM sleep. The REM phase (rapid eye movement beneath closed eyelids) is when dreaming happens in humans as well as animals.  But while Fido is dreaming about chasing that aggravating cat, Baby hasn’t been outside the confines of Mama’s womb to develop experiences to dream about—not to mention developing the brain capacity to process those experiences. 

Babies may be dreaming about what they know, but their limited sensory experiences and their underdeveloped brains make it less probable.  Still, that good book you’re reading aloud and the classical music playing in the background just might make a great “script” for unborn-baby dreams.

When and Why Do Babies Start To Dream?

From what we know about the sleep cycles of newborns 0-3 months, dreaming would most likely begin during the first two weeks of life. If babies 4-7 months do dream during REM, scientists believe REM sleep allows their brains to build integrated neurological pathways and develop language. 

The more babies learn about the world around them, the more they dream. It is believed that dreaming helps children to make sense of their world and sort through emotions they do not fully understand. As language develops, children can communicate what they are dreaming of. Once children above 12 months of age have acquired the capacity to imagine things visually and spatially, they begin to describe their dreams in the simplest of terms. Little Bobby may dream about the patience and balance it takes to build a fortress with those new blocks Grandma gave him.  In his dreams, he can wrestle with the joy and frustration that comes with placing the final block at the tippy top, only to have baby brother knock it down. All this is worked through subconsciously while dreaming.

Can Babies Have Nightmares?

For most babies, crying while asleep is a phase rather than a sign of a problem. During lighter phases of sleep, babies will whimper, moan or scream before moving on to a deeper phase of sleep. The lighter phase of sleep is just super noisy rather than a nightmare. The “moro” or “startle” reflex is also a common cause of newborn waking in the first four months of life.  A Woolino swaddle blanket will help babies feel secure and sleep more soundly through those lighter sleep phases.

Almost every child has an occasional upsetting dream. But nightmares seem to peak during the preschool years when fear of the dark is more common. Nightmares typically occur during the lighter phases of the sleep cycle. There may be other reasons for your child’s wakefulness (10 Reasons Why Your Baby Is Not Sleeping at Night), but a parent's comfort and reassurance are usually all that is necessary to settle them back to sleep after a nightmare. You should talk to your doctor if nightmares occur often; prevent your child from getting the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended hours of sleep each night; or if they happen along with other emotional or behavioral issues.

Nightmares may be more likely to occur if a child is sick or sleep-deprived.  Implementing a sleep routine for infants sets the stage for good sleep habits into toddlerhood and beyond.  Including a Woolino sleep bag in your bedtime routine ensures that the baby’s temperature is regulated. A regulated temperature avoids disruption to the baby’s sleep cycle.  Remember, babies cannot fully control their body temperature, so it’s important to make sure they are not cold or overheated. The security of a Woolino sleep bag can also help babies to self-sooth as part of establishing a perfect bedtime routine as well.