Published on May 26th, 2021
The house is quiet, the lights are dim, and your baby is finally asleep. As you watch your sleeping cutie doze peacefully in his crib, you may wonder, do babies dream? And if they do, what do they dream about?
Is your baby imagining himself soaring over fields of living room carpet and swooping down to save Blanket from slipping through the crevices of Couch Mountain? Or maybe he’s ninja-climbing the Great Baby Gate Wall and discovering the lost city of Kitchen.
While it’s easy for you to dream up wild narratives, your baby’s brain has yet to develop his visual and spatial imagination. So to that end, no, your baby doesn’t dream.
That doesn’t mean his brain isn’t active during sleep. In fact, while he’s catching those Zs, your little dreamer is busy with a far more fantastic creation—his cognitive and motor development.
The Science of Sleep
When you close your eyes and drift off to dreamland, you may feel as though you fall into one uninterrupted state of being, but for both adults and babies, sleep occurs in a cycle. However, your sleep and your child’s sleep may be very different. Why?
- Adults and babies over six months old experience five distinct stages of sleep—four stages of non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM), and one stage of rapid eye movement sleep (REM).
In contrast, newborn sleep consists of only two of these five stages:
- One stage of non-rapid eye movement sleep – Also referred to as quiet dreamless sleep, or non REM sleep, this sleep stage is characterized by decreases in brain activity, heart rate, breathing, and body temperature. During this stage we sleep most deeply, which allows our bodies the time needed to rest and recover from the day’s activities. When you wake feeling refreshed and well-rested, you can thank your NREM sleep phase.
- One stage of rapid eye movement sleep – Rapid eye movement sleep is often referred to as active sleep. While our bodies are essentially paralyzed (aside from our eyes, which dart rapidly back and forth behind our eyelids), our brains are on the move, with brainwave activity closely resembling that of our awake state.
Research suggests that during REM sleep, our brains (and our babies’ brains!) process what we’ve learned and experienced during the day, consolidating our short-term memories into long-term memories. For adults and children over the age of two, REM sleep is also the dream sleep stage.
Because adults and young children experience sleep in five stages, the REM stage only makes up about 20% of their total sleep time. However, because babies younger than six months have their sleep split between only two stages, they spend an impressive 50% of their total sleep time in REM and 50% in NREM. This means that newborns who sleep 18 hours experience 9 hours of REM sleep in one day.
If that time isn’t spent dreaming of milk bottles and binkies, what is happening in your baby’s brain during all that REM?
The Role of REM Sleep in Babies
Sleep plays an essential role in your baby’s rapidly growing body and brain. Research suggests that during REM sleep your baby’s brain builds neural pathways that contribute to the development of her cognitive and motor skills, including her ability to learn language.
It all begins before your baby is even born. Starting between 28 and 30 weeks, REM sleep inside the mother’s womb promotes the formation of neural networks that allow your baby to see, smell, feel, and move. After birth, your baby still has a significant number of connections to build, which explains why her brain spends so much time in an active REM state.
Have you noticed that when your little bundle of joy closes her eyes, she becomes a little bundle of squirms? That’s because during REM sleep, young babies often:
- Twitch their fingers and toes
- Jerk their arms and legs
- Flutter their eyelids
- Suckle or smack their lips
Although it may be tempting to interpret these movements as your baby exploring the landscape of her dreams, these twitches actually signify your baby’s brain exploring the landscape of her nervous system.
Translating the Twitch
The technical term for this REM twitching is myoclonus—a muscle spasm that can occur during sleep or while awake. There are two different types of myoclonus twitches:
- Positive myoclonus – This is a twitch caused by a sudden muscle contraction.
- Negative myoclonus – This is a twitch caused by muscle relaxation.
Whether you realize it or not, you’ve likely experienced myoclonus as well. Have you ever jerked awake at the sensation of falling as you’re drifting off to sleep? That’s a type of positive myoclonus. Or perhaps you’ve experienced a sudden contraction of your diaphragm—another positive myoclonus known as a hiccup.
In sleeping babies, positive myocloni are believed to be a form of brain motor exploration. In other words, while your sleeping baby is snoring soundly, his brain is creating a specialized map. No, not to find the lost city of Kitchen, but rather to learn the roads, bridges, and highways of his expanding neural network to coordinate awake movements.
Some neuroscientists even believe there’s a link between the areas that twitch during REM sleep and the development of those specific motor skills. For instance, when your baby is learning to reach for his toys or grab at Mom’s shiny necklace (What do you mean it’s not a toy?), you may notice increased sleep twitching in his fingers and wrists. That’s his brain mapping out those learned motor functions.
The Development of Baby Sleep Stages
After a thrilling day of Peek-a-Boo, tummy tickles, and nursery rhymes, your newborn will likely start to show signs of sleepiness. These can include:
- Rubbing her eyes
- Becoming fussy
When you lay your baby down in her crib (check out our blog post about how to get your baby to sleep in their crib if you struggle with this step), her journey into sleep begins. First, she’ll enter REM, which typically lasts between 50 and 60 minutes. This means, in your baby’s initial moments of sleep, it may appear as though she’s still awake as she twitches, flutters her eyelids, and smiles.
However, once she moves into NREM sleep, she’ll become much more still. This sleep sequence (starting with REM and moving into NREM) differs from that of older babies and adults, who first begin sleep with 90 minutes of NREM before moving into REM.
As your baby grows, her brain will require less time for its neural cartography hobby. This means her REM sleep stage will shorten. Around the three-month mark, your baby’s two sleep stages will start to split. Her NREM sleep will divide itself into four distinct stages, marked by changes in brain waves. By the time she’s six months old, your baby’s sleep cycle and baby circadian rhythm will likely mirror your adult sleep cycle.
That means rather than starting her slumber with the REM stage, she’ll follow the adult sleep pattern of first falling into:
- Stage 1 (NREM) – During this stage, your baby’s brain waves slow, her muscles relax, and her eyes may become droopy (or shut altogether). This light stage of sleep acts as a transition between wakefulness and sleep and accounts for 2% to 5% of the total sleep cycle.
- Stage 2 (NREM) – During this stage, your baby’s muscles relax even further, and eye movements stop altogether. Although this stage of sleep is slightly deeper than the previous stage, it’s still considered light sleep that can easily be disrupted by sudden, startling noises.
- Stages 3 and 4 (NREM) – The last two stages of NREM sleep are nearly identical to each other. During this time, your baby’s heart rate and breathing both slow to their lowest levels, causing a period of deep sleep that’s difficult to disturb.
- Stage 5 (REM) – REM is now the last stage of the sleep cycle, marked by mixed frequency brain wave activity, like that seen in periods of wakefulness. During this stage, your baby’s heart rate and breathing both increase, and her eyes move rapidly beneath closed eyelids. Aside from the twitches discussed above, this stage is also defined by muscle paralysis—an evolutionary response thought to prevent us from acting out our dreams (once dreaming becomes part of this sleep stage, which occurs around age 2).
When do babies start dreaming?
Many neuroscientists believe that to dream, our brains must be able to imagine visual and spatial information. Until a baby’s brain develops this capability, it’s believed their REM sleep is dreamless. However, pediatric dreaming expert David Foulkes suggests that even before this development is complete, babies as young as two years old may begin to experience dreaming.
Through his baby dream research, Foulkes built the following dream development timeline for children:
- 2–6 years old – Younger children who are still learning to understand language and the world around them likely see static images during their REM stage, such as their favorite toys or the faces of their parents.
When children are around ages 4 and 5, they’re able to start describing their dreams. However, these dreams don’t include moving characters, narrative stories, emotions, or even an active dreamer. Instead, their dreaming is rather like flipping through a photo album of what they’ve experienced during the day. Images often include objects they’re familiar with, such as animals, people they know, and places they’ve been to.
Interestingly, Foulkes found that before age 7, only 20% of children report dreaming after being awakened from REM sleep. This is thought to be due to a limited understanding of the fact that they’re dreaming or a limited capacity to translate these mental images.
- 7–8 years old – Dreaming the way adults experience it—with structured narratives, moving images, and powerful emotions—occurs once children have developed a greater sense of self-awareness, around ages 7 and 8. Many neuroscientists believe self-awareness is a necessary factor of dreaming, as it allows us to imagine ourselves within the visually fantastic spaces our minds create.
- 9 years old – By age 9, older children not only experience narrative dreaming, but they also become more capable of remembering these vivid dreams when they wake up. This is because they can now imagine themselves as the active character within their own dreams.
Dreaming to learn more about your baby?
Although your little snoozer may not be discovering a fantastic dreamworld of buried treasures (his binky), ancient ruins (yesterday’s blown-out onesie), or hidden cities of Kitchen just yet, you can nevertheless unlock the secrets to your own great mystery—your baby’s DNA—with SneakPeek Early Traits DNA Test.
SneakPeek Traits is an easy-to-use, at-home DNA test that provides scientifically-validated information about your little one’s unique sleep behavior, including his:
- Chronotype – night owl vs. early bird?
- Sleep latency – how long does it take him to fall asleep?
- Sleep efficiency – time spent asleep vs. time in bed?
- Ideal sleep duration – needs more or less sleep than the average?
SneakPeek also provides advice for personalizing a newborn sleep schedule specific to your baby’s genetic predisposition. To help turn your dreams of restful sleep and comprehensive baby insight into reality, choose SneakPeek.
NCBI. The Visual Scoring of Sleep in Infants 0 to 2 Months of Age. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4773630/
NCBI. Sleep physiology and sleep disorders in childhood. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3630965/
NIH. Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/patient-caregiver-education/understanding-sleep
Healthline Parenthood. Baby Twitching in Sleep: Is This Normal? https://www.healthline.com/health/baby/baby-twitching-in-sleep#definition
Healthline Parenthood. What’s My Baby Dreaming About? https://www.healthline.com/health/parenting/baby-dreaming
Live Science. What Do Babies Dream About? https://www.livescience.com/33702-babies-dream-sleep.html
Happiest Baby. What Do Babies Dream About? https://www.happiestbaby.com/blogs/toddler/kids-dreams#:~:text=It%20turns%20out%20that%20infants,retain%20them%20in%20their%20memory
NCBI. Dreaming and the brain: from phenomenology to neurophysiology. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20079677/