To anyone who has watched a sleeping baby suddenly offer up a silly, milk-drunk smile, shudder at an unseen baby enemy (our money’s on those terrifying Halloween decorations in the pharmacy) or bury her face in your chest for comfort, it seems pretty obvious that babies dream. But what do they dream about?
Until recently, there has been no scientific consensus on one of parenthood’s snuggliest mysteries. Psychologists and human development experts have been going back and forth for decades, arguing opposing views, with some declaring babies do not dream at all and others replying with the academic equivalent of, ‘Yes they totally do.’ The problem, as science journalist Angela Saini once wrote, is that: “Getting inside the head of a baby is like deciphering the thoughts of a kitten.”
And yet we do know that the mind of a baby is a miraculous machine. They spend the majority of their early lives sleeping (for newborns, that’s 16 hours a day on average). And it’s not just any sleep. From the moment they are born, babies spend half their sleep time in the REM (rapid eye movement) phase—the one in which humans dream. REM sleep is also when babies’ brains process information, convert observations and experiences into skills, retain memories and develop language.
Some experts argue all this activity leaves no room for dreams as we know them. “While all that grunt work is going on, [babies] lack the head space and the ability to imagine themselves as the heroes of baby adventures, or to dream up fantasy toys,” writes Natalie Wolchover in Live Science. This point of view is based on the work of original “dream harvester,” psychologist David Foulkes, who began studying kids’ dreams in the 1960s. He concluded that children don’t begin to have vivid, narrative-rich dreams until they reach roughly school age. That’s when they start to become cognizant of their own identities and their visual and spatial imaginations take off. Based on kids’ accounts in his sleep lab, Foulkes advanced the theory that you need to have a defined sense of self in order to ‘star’ in your own story-driven dreams. “In fact,” writes Wolchover, “the amount of self-knowledge a child possesses—her understanding that she would be the same person even if she had a different name, for instance, and that she is the same person as she was when she was a baby — strongly correlates with the vibrancy and amount of plot structure in that child's dreams.”