Do babies dream when they sleep?
When you see your infant smiling or moving as they slumber, it's only natural to wonder whether they’re dreaming. But do babies actually dream—and if so, what are they dreaming about?
How babies sleep
First, it helps to understand the stages of baby sleep. As compared to older children and adults, newborns have a unique sleep cycle. After becoming drowsy—which you may recognize by the sight of fluttering eyes and tiny yawns—they drift off into light sleep.1
Shortly thereafter, their brain gets to work as they enter REM, or active sleep. While the body may be at rest, the brain is busy processing events from waking life. As babies' eyes rapidly move back and forth under their eyelids, their legs and arms may twitch or jerk, and they may smile or even cry out. This may make you wonder, "Can babies have nightmares?" Fortunately, the answer is no—more on this below. It's also normal for babies' breathing to be irregular during the REM phase, so don't panic if your baby pauses between breaths. Later in the sleep cycle, babies transition into a deeper, more restful sleep before waking.
Why does it seem like my baby is dreaming?
To adults, these involuntary movements look like dreaming—which is indeed what we do during REM sleep.2 But while most of our dreaming happens during this phase, most neuroscientists believe that babies don't dream. Instead, during REM sleep, their brains are building pathways and connections.3 This creates the foundation for everything from motor skills to language development, so there's a lot of work happening while babies are resting.
Do newborns dream?
It's highly unlikely that babies of any age experience dreaming as we know it but give them time. As children grow, their dreams grow along with them. Psychologist and pediatric dream researcher David Foulkes has found that around the age of three, children begin to recall dreams during REM sleep.4 In his book Children's Dreaming and the Development of Consciousness, he describes these early dreams as static images—often of animals.5 Preschoolers, however, don't yet dream about themselves, conversations, or emotions. Between the ages of 7 and 9, children have more frequent and complex dreams in which they feature as the primary character.
The bottom line
While babies spend a lot of time sleeping, they almost certainly don't spend that time dreaming—yet. And if they do, well, they're not talking about it.
But whether they're dreaming or not, sleeping is one of their most important tasks. Find out why sleep is so important for a baby's development.
2 Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep
4 Children's Dreaming and the Development of Consciousness by David Foulkes