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.”
And yet, what if older, more articulate kids are simply better at telling others about their dreams. How do we really know for sure what’s going on inside the mind of a pre-verbal baby? More recently, prominent scientists have made a convincing case that babies do indeed dream, and we just don’t yet have the technology to assess the specifics. In 2005, neurologist Charles P. Pollak, then director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center told the New York Times, in answer to the question of whether babies dream: “Yes, as far as we can tell. We presume,” he added, “that infants dream infantile things.”
For the latest info, we reached out to Dr. Alison Gopnik PhD, Professor of Psychology and Affiliate Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Psychology at UC Berkeley and author of The Philosophical Baby. “We don’t know if babies dream but we know that they actually spend more time in REM (rapid eye movement sleep) than adults and REM is consistently correlated with dreaming in adults,” she says. “We also know that babies consolidate their knowledge and learn in their REM sleep. So it seems very likely that babies dream and that they may even do so more than adults do.” A “very likely” answer to one of parenthood’s most enduring questions? Sounds pretty dreamy.