You are probably wondering, as many parents have over the years, what your baby is dreaming about as they sleep.
Or maybe you’re wondering if we’ll ever know what babies’ dreams are made of. In fact, do babies dream?
The truth is somewhat concealed still, given the elusive nature of dreams and how little we know about the way an infant’s brain processes things at that stage. Yet as you see your little one’s eyelids flutter as if engaged in an active dream, it’s hard not to wonder what goes on in their brains as they absorb more information with each day that passes.
Dreams Before Words?
It’s not until a baby starts talking that we can have a glimpse into their sleep mysteries. Even then, it takes a few years of understanding the world around them and putting it into words before children can begin to let parents into the intimate world of dreams.
From what we know of sleep cycles in adults and children versus newborns, it seems that babies are most active in dreamland during the first two weeks of life. That’s when half of their sleep time is spent as rapid eye movement or REM. As babies grow, the REM stage shortens.
The REM stage is the one associated with dreaming, hence the assumptions that new babies dream more than the rest of us.
If adults spend approximately 20 percent of their sleep in REM, new babies spend up to 50 percent in REM, which is also known as the “active sleep” stage. It’s during REM that adults can wake up easily, and babies are no different.
A baby’s complete sleep cycle is approximately half of that of an adult, and for good reason. Short sleep bouts ensure that a hungry baby gets fed and checked on regularly, which helps reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Babies and Circadian Rhythms
Newborn babies’ sleep listens to no defined circadian rhythm, as sleep deprived parents can attest. Yet sleep is nothing new to your baby. Your little one started sleeping sometime during the first trimester and you probably noticed the waking and sleeping patterns during the end of the second trimester.
The hormone responsive for inducing drowsiness (melatonin) influences the baby’s rest patterns before birth, and though circadian rhythms start to emerge during the first days of life outside the womb, it’s around 12 weeks that they get somewhat established and babies start sleeping more at night.
Once babies become more accustomed to sleeping most of the night (yes, they will!), their time spent in the REM stage will gradually shorten and they will indulge in longer bouts of profound sleep.
The REM stage is when the body is completely relaxed and the brain is active, babies included.
In order for dreams to occur, neuroscientists believe, children have to have acquired the capacity to imagine things. In other words, they have to be able to be able to construct visually and spatially in order to experience dreaming the way we know of it. Babies are a long way yet, but learning how to get there.
If you’re still wondering about what your little one is dreaming about, you’ll likely have to put the hope of finding an answer on hold for now.
Sleep during the first weeks and months of life helps your baby’s brain grow and process all that stimulation that life brings, day after day. At any age, sleep helps consolidate memory and that helps us integrate our experiences and also increases our knowledge. As babies go through the same process of solidifying information about the world, the importance of sleeping can’t be overstated.
It’s true that you may not know what your little one is dreaming about as you hear sighs and grunting or see their eyelids flutter, but now you know that their brain is anything but asleep. In fact, they are learning a lot, including the words that may later tell you all about those dreams you often wondered about.