Your baby is sleeping soundly, and they’re so adorable you can’t help but watch them sleep. As you’re watching, you notice your little one smile a little or maybe even laugh, and you wonder, “What is my precious angel dreaming about?”
You’re not the only one that’s wondered about their baby’s sleeping habits. Can they dream? We all know that the things we see in our dreams are based on reality, but since babies can’t see very well when they are born, you may be wondering how it’s possible for them to dream.
We love our little ones, and we want to know what’s going on in their heads all the time, but dreams are something that even adults have trouble remembering. Can we find out what our babies dream about?
Let’s take a look.
Do Babies Dream?
The first question we want to answer is whether babies dream or not. The quick answer is yes, yes, they do. Babies actually dream much more than we do since they spend most of their time sleeping.
Dreams are difficult to study, even in adults. What we do know is that dreams happen alongside a period of heightened mental activity, which in turn, produces mental imagery. If you watch someone, including your little one, sleeping, you may notice their eyes moving quickly even though they’re closed, increased heart rate, and a change in breathing.
Although scientists can tell when a dream might be occurring, they can’t really see what the dreamer is seeing. Only dreamers can “see” what they’re dreaming, and they often forget it.
Most doctors and scientists theorize that dreams are related to memory processing. Although we do this when we’re awake, too, dreams can, theoretically, help sort through and consolidate memories.
Our dreams can also change depending on what we are going through. If we’re stressed or anxious, nightmares tend to become more common. If not, you may have more relaxing dreams.
How Do We Know That Babies Dream?
We know that adults dream because they can talk about them and can occasionally remember what happened. Unfortunately, our little ones can’t talk right away, so you may be curious how we know that babies have dreams.
Although we can’t see what our babies see at night, we do know how a baby’s sleep cycle works. Most dreams occur during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Eyes move quickly during this period because of the increased mental activity that usually causes dreams.
When babies that are first born sleep, they only have two stages in their sleep cycle: Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM sleep) and REM sleep. Newborns can spend anywhere between 40% and 70% of their time asleep in the REM stage, so it’s very likely that they experience dreams.
What Do Babies Dream About?
Unfortunately, we can’t know exactly what babies dream about. It would take a mind reader to be able to determine what our little one is dreaming. Plus, babies don’t have very good eyesight after they’re born, so even though we know that they do dream, it might not be as visual as an adult’s dream.
While they don’t have advanced visions yet, that doesn’t mean their worlds are bursting with color — metaphorically, anyway. Babies learn new things every day. They have a lot of information that they need to process. They can still smell and feel, and they do have the ability to see you.
In fact, REM sleep is great for your little one’s mental development. It can help them with their mood.
Experts have found a link between REM sleep and coping mechanisms. These mechanisms can help babies in the future as they develop socially. It aids in communication skills and executive function.
REM sleep, as we mentioned previously, also helps people retain and process memories. It can give your little one the time they need to process things without receiving a bunch of new information simultaneously.
During REM sleep, the connections in your brain usually go into overdrive, which helps brain development. Since all of these parts are factors in REM sleep, it probably means your baby is dreaming; we just can’t be sure what the dream is actually about.
What Is a Sleep Cycle?
Newborns sleep around 18 hours a day. However, since their stomachs are so small, they sleep in shorter stretches, so they can eat frequently. Sleep helps their brains to process information and develop. As they get older, your little ones won’t need to sleep as much.
A sleep cycle is the different stages of sleep that we go through. Each stage is based on the brain waves that occur during that stage. Adults experience four different stages of sleep. The fourth stage is REM sleep, which has waves similar to the ones our brains experience when we’re awake.
The other three stages are different types of NREM sleep: NREM 1, NREM 2, and NREM 3. NREM 3 is the deepest sleep adults experience, whereas the other two are lighter stages.
Babies only experience two stages of sleep in their sleep cycle, but as they get older, they gradually develop all four stages.
How Do Babies’ Sleep Cycles Develop?
When your little one is a newborn, they will spend roughly the same time in the REM stage as the NREM stage. Once they reach three months, they will start to experience all of the same stages as adults.
They will begin to experience the different levels of NREM, or quiet sleep, and the amount of time they spend in REM sleep, or active sleep, tends to decrease. However, your little one’s sleep cycle won’t be fully formed and resemble an adult’s cycle until they’re about five years old.
Once your little one starts to develop a stronger sleep cycle and circadian rhythm, you can start to sleep train your baby. It’s important to follow your little one’s cues since everyone develops at their own rate. (Their tummies will also have grown, so they can sleep for longer stretches without needing to eat.)
How Do I Know if My Baby Is Experiencing REM Sleep?
If you’re watching your baby while they sleep, you might want to know when each part of their sleep cycle occurs. When will your baby be dreaming?
During NREM sleep, babies are usually very peaceful and quiet. They don’t typically move about very much. On the other hand, babies experiencing REM sleep are much more active. You might see their eyes moving behind their eyelids, or you may see them twitching or moving around.
When your baby is in their REM stage, they might make small sounds, which, if you’re worried about your little one waking up, might cause you to check to make sure. Usually, it’s best to wait a few minutes. If the sound isn’t getting louder or starting to lead to crying, it probably means your little one was only making sounds in their sleep.
You may also see your baby’s startle reflex while they’re sleeping. This is much more likely to wake them up, much like when we experience a falling feeling when we’re dreaming or about to fall asleep.
How Can I Help My Baby Sleep Better?
The things you can do to help your baby fall asleep will depend on how old they are and your baby’s personality and needs. However, here are a few general tips that you can use to help your little one fall asleep and sleep more soundly.
One thing you can do is help your baby to get comfortable. When you put your baby to bed, it’s important they have a clean diaper and a full belly. It’s difficult to sleep if you feel dirty or hungry, and babies are much more likely to make a fuss if they are uncomfortable.
They will also prefer to sleep at a comfortable temperature. If they’re too hot or too cold, it’s much more difficult for them to fall asleep.
Babies also will sleep better if there aren’t any stimulants in the room. Lights can disrupt sleep, even when you have your eyes closed. Putting up blackout curtains and turning off the lights can help everyone sleep more soundly.
A white noise machine might also be handy. It reduces loud sounds and has a calming effect on most babies. However, for naps, it can be helpful for your little one to learn to sleep with light and sounds, so they can develop a better sense of the difference between day and night.
Babies tend to fall asleep much more easily if they have a bedtime routine. It helps them realize that it’s time to calm down and sleep, and the pattern can be relaxing.
A quiet bedtime routine can include things like:
- Putting on pajamas
- Quiet play
- Reading a book
Since newborns have a strong startle reflex, swaddling them can keep them from waking themselves up. Once your baby starts to roll over, though, it’s best to use sleep sacks. Their startle reflex won’t be as strong, and their hands will be free to help them position themselves better.
Sweet Dreams for You And Your Baby
Even though we can’t know what our babies are dreaming about, it’s still sweet to see that tiny smile on their faces as they sleep soundly. Plus, by understanding our baby's sleep cycle, we can better understand how our babies function and how to help them sleep better.
Babies may start out with a simple, two-part sleep cycle. They spend a lot of time sleeping, but since they don’t sleep for long periods, they don’t have the time to go through four different stages of sleep.
Once a baby gets older and can sleep for long stretches, their sleep cycle starts to develop further, and your baby will start to experience new phases of sleep, and we can help them learn how to do things like falling asleep on their own, as long as they are ready for it.
Babies may not be able to see a lot at first, but they still need time to process information. Dreams during REM sleep appear to be the way that memories are processed in adults, so it makes sense that our little ones would have a similar experience.
If you’re looking for more resources on your little one’s development, you can check out our collection of helpful articles.
We may not be absolutely certain what babies dream about, but if we had to guess, Mom and Dad are probably prominent figures.
Dreams: What They Are and What They Mean | Cleveland Clinic
Infant Sleep Cycles: How Are They Different From Adults? | Sleep Foundation
Understanding REM Sleep in Babies | Pathways.org
Infant Vision: Birth to 24 Months of Age | AOA
Stress-induced sleep rebound: adaptive behavior and possible mechanisms | Brazilian Sleep Association