From your baby’s perspective, birth and the experience of life outside the womb is probably like waking from a long and unbroken dream into an entirely new world.
The science of modern dream and sleep research really leapt forward when Eugene Aserinsky, working as a researcher in a sleep laboratory, noticed that his eight year old son’s eyes moved while he slept. Later it was found this was due to the eyes following activities taking place in a dream, and that these rapid eye movements (REM) were a sign of dreaming.
From this it was seen that even newborn babies dream. In fact, although adults only spend about a third of their sleep period dreaming, babies spend 50 to 80 percent of sleep in dreams. Some researchers, carrying their investigation into the womb, state that at 24-30 weeks gestational age the unborn baby dreams a 100 percent.
Because most researchers investigate dreaming from a physiological or neurological standpoint, they are not very good at telling us why babies, or we adults, spend so much time dreaming. This is because dreams are more connected with the passionate drive to survive, to relate, to learn and grow. When we see a child go into a frenzy when they are lost, we can understand just how passionate the emotional level of dreams are. It is this level of feeling that dreams deal with.
What do babies dream about? We can’t know exact subject matter, but their dreams are most likely silent, says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., the associate director of the Sleep Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “Since infants don’t have language, their dreams probably consist of imagery without any dialogue.”
What about nightmares? Beyond a healthy wariness of strangers, kids don’t develop real fears until age 2 or 3. “Until then, it’s very unlikely that a baby would have a scary dream,” says Mindell.
What’s a night terror? Although these unexplained partial arousals between sleep stages may cause your child to shriek and thrash about, she is not having a bad dream. After a few minutes, your baby will settle back down (in fact, she probably never woke up at all). The best thing to do? Nothing. Trying to console her may only prolong the episode.