Do Babies Dream? What Does Science Say?

Most moms and dads have wondered at one point or another - does my baby dream? During the first year of life, babies spend more time sleeping than awake. Smiles, sucking motions, and random movements are all common during sleep.

Key takeaways:
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    REM sleep, otherwise known as active sleep, is when dreams occur for older children and adults.
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    Babies spend almost 50% of their sleep time in active sleep, leading many people to wonder if babies dream.
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    Your baby's brain is hard at work during sleep, but they likely are not dreaming, at least not in the same way adults do.
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    Research shows that active sleep is a time of intense brain activity essential for growth and development.

While scientists have learned much about sleep, research may never confirm whether babies dream. However, we do know that sleep is essential to overall development. While their body is at rest, your baby's brain is hard at work.

Infant sleep stages

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there are four stages of infant sleep:

Stage 1: Drowsy - In this stage, a baby appears sleepy and drifts off to sleep.

Stage 2: REM Sleep - The next stage is rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. There is a lot of movement during this stage which is also known as active sleep. You may notice:

  • Eye movements - fluttering open/close, visible movement under the eyelids.
  • Twitches - arms and legs make random, jerky movements.
  • Irregular (Periodic) Breathing patterns - newborns to 6-month-olds show this normal breathing pattern. You will see a slight pause in breathing, followed by several short, rapid breaths, then back to even breathing.
  • Mouth movements - sucking motions and smiles for example.

Stage 3: Light Sleep - During this stage, the movements begin to slow down.

Stage 4: Deep Non-REM Sleep - Also known as quiet sleep. Babies appear calm and are harder to wake up than in other sleep stages. You may notice:

  • Decreased eye movements.
  • Baby is very still and quiet.
  • Their breathing becomes more regular, deep, and even.

Infant sleep patterns

Babies sleep much more than they are awake. The total amount of sleep per day and the timing of sleep change several times during their first year of life.

Newborns typically spend about 16-17 hours asleep every day, divided into 3-4 hour stretches. By their first birthday, the total daily amount decreases to 13-14 hours, with the most prolonged sleep period (hopefully) through the night hours.

Research has shown that newborn sleep is divided equally between the quiet (non-REM) and active (REM) sleep stages. In contrast, adults only spend about 20-25% of their sleep time in REM sleep.

What does science say about baby dreams?

What can science tell us about baby dreams? The short answer is we may never know.

Dreams are thoughts, images, and sensations that occur during sleep. Dreaming requires the ability to process abstract thoughts and distinguish 'self' from 'not-self.' Unfortunately, babies don't have the language skills to tell us what happens during their sleep periods.

The most vivid dreams occur during REM sleep for older children and adults. REM sleep is also the time during sleep when your brain processes emotions and experiences, deciding what to save and what to discard.

What happens during REM sleep?

Babies spend more time in REM sleep than at any other point in life. However, scientists hypothesize that the brain is not mature enough to dream as we typically define it.

Studies associate good sleep with physical growth, overall cognitive development, and memory formation. If newborns spend 16-17 hours asleep, 8-9 hours are spent in the REM sleep stage. What is happening during all of that active sleep?

During REM sleep, the brain makes connections, develops pathways, and processes information. Smiles, arm and leg movements, and eye fluttering are all associated with a cascade of neurologic activity that is essential for overall development.

Each seemingly random movement or smile sends signals to the brain. The brain uses these signals to process and develop a 'somatotropic map.' This map allows your baby to eventually learn what is 'self' versus 'not-self.' It lays the foundation for all future learning. Babies are usually between 6 months and a year old before they understand that they are separate from others.

Sleep is essential for your baby's development. So the next time you see a random movement or smile while your baby sleeps, you will know their brain is working hard to create connections, develop pathways, and process information.

Science cannot definitively say if babies do or do not dream. Maybe in the future, technology will be able to project images directly from a sleeping brain. Until then, you will just have to wonder and imagine what your baby sees when they drift off to sleep.

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