Your baby dreams more than you! Dis­cover what her night-time ad­ven­tures are all about

Mother & Baby - - CONTENTS - Dr Alan Greene is Pro­fes­sor of Pae­di­atrics at Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity, UK, and a fa­ther-of-four, DrGreene.com

Baby dreams de­coded

Your baby sleeps a lot, though per­haps not ex­actly quite when you want her to! At one week old, she sleeps for a whop­ping 16 hours a day. Even at 12 months old, she’s clock­ing up 13 hours out of every 24. And dur­ing a lot of that snooze-time, she’s busy dream­ing. That’s pretty amaz­ing. What is she dream­ing about, and why? Well, once you know, you’ll be lean­ing over your baby’s cot and smil­ing as you watch her hav­ing sweet dreams.


“Just like adults, ba­bies need sleep to re­store their bod­ies and brains,” says Pro­fes­sor of Pae­di­atrics Dr Alan Greene. “We all go through ‘sleep cy­cles’: when we first fall asleep, we’re in light sleep and dur­ing this stage it’s easy for us to wake up. Then we start to move into deeper sleep, which is when our brain is rest­ing and re­cov­er­ing; and then we go back towards light sleep again.” Each of your adult sleep cy­cles takes about 90 min­utes. But your baby’s sleep cy­cles are much shorter: she goes through

her pat­tern of light sleep, deep sleep, light sleep every 50 min­utes. And be­cause dreams hap­pen dur­ing the pe­ri­ods of light sleep, and ba­bies have more of those than adults ow­ing to their shorter sleep cy­cles, ba­bies dream more than we do. “As we sur­face from deep sleep into light sleep, we en­ter Rapid Eye Move­ment sleep (REM),” ex­plains Alan. “If you look at any­one in REM sleep, you’ll see their eyes dart­ing about. Sci­en­tists have mea­sured brain­waves dur­ing this stage of sleep and found dis­tinct pat­terns of brain ac­tiv­ity that show that we dream dur­ing REM sleep.” Armed with this knowl­edge, sci­en­tists have dis­cov­ered just how much ba­bies dream. “Chil­dren dream more than adults, but ba­bies dream the most,” says Alan. “Amaz­ingly, it seems we may be at our dreami­est when we’re in the womb, from about 28 weeks of ges­ta­tion.” When the brain­waves of un­born ba­bies are mea­sured, the re­sults show that they get around 10 hours of REM dream­ing sleep every 24 hours. This de­clines dur­ing the first months of life, and by the time your baby is one year old, she’ll be hav­ing five hours of REM sleep a night. That’s still a lot of dream time, but it’s noth­ing like the level she had be­fore she was born!


“Of course we can’t ask ba­bies – un­born or new­born – about their dreams,” says Alan. “But we think we un­der­stand why they dream: dreams help them make sense of their ex­pe­ri­ences.” So think about what ex­pe­ri­ences your baby had to process while she was in your womb. “There was a lot go­ing on!” says Alan.

“At 28 weeks your baby’s eyes were open when she was awake. So if you were out­side in the sun­light, she sensed the light. Her senses of touch and hear­ing were also de­vel­op­ing in your womb, and her sense of smell too – aroma mol­e­cules can cross the pla­centa, so she could smell the things that you could smell.” And if you don’t think she was tak­ing all that in­for­ma­tion in, think again! In 2013, re­searchers at the Uni­ver­sity of Helsinki car­ried out an ex­per­i­ment ask­ing mums in their fi­nal trimester to play a CD of Twin­kle, Twin­kle, Lit­tle Star reg­u­larly to their un­born ba­bies. They were asked to stop play­ing the CD after they’d given birth, so the ba­bies didn’t hear the song again. When the ba­bies were four months old, the song was re-played to them and their brain­waves lit up – they recog­nised the tune! This ex­per­i­ment shows that ba­bies not only hear things when they’re in the womb, but that they can process the sounds and re­mem­ber them too. So dur­ing all those hours that your un­born baby spent dream­ing, she was pro­cess­ing her am­ni­otic world and try­ing to make sense of it. And that pro­cess­ing car­ries on when your baby is born. For a new­born, ev­ery­thing is new and over­whelm­ing. Just think how dif­fer­ent what she’s see­ing, smelling, tast­ing, hear­ing and touch­ing is now she’s in the out­side world! And she’ll dream about all these ex­pe­ri­ences, to help her man­age them. “While your baby can’t tell you what she’s dream­ing about, there are clues about the dreams she’s hav­ing,” Alan says. “The big clue is how your baby be­haves when she wakes up. If she’s happy and smil­ing, she’s prob­a­bly dreamt about cud­dles and milk. If she’s fussy and cry­ing, she might have been pro­cess­ing a less happy ex­pe­ri­ence – maybe be­ing hun­gry or when she didn’t like the way her baby­gro felt.” So to help her have more of the nice dreams, make sure that bed­time is a pro­tected and pre­dictable time. Singing lul­la­bies is re­as­sur­ing, as is skin-to-skin time be­fore bed – dur­ing feed­ing or a reg­u­lar be­fore-bed cud­dle.


As your baby gets big­ger and starts to talk, it’s com­mon for her to start telling you about her vivid dreams – some good, some not so good. But it’s re­as­sur­ing to know that dreams are mostly happy ex­pe­ri­ences when she’s very young. “We think that bad dreams tend to be most com­mon in chil­dren aged be­tween three and six,’ says Alan. ‘By this age, their imag­i­na­tion has taken off and they can think about things that they haven’t ac­tu­ally sensed them­selves, and they’re de­vel­op­ing a sense of fear.” As she gets older, you can help min­imise the not-so-happy dreams. “Night­mares help chil­dren make sense of things that they’re anx­ious about,” ex­plains Alan. “And one of the best things you can do is to help her process them. Once she’s old enough, get her to draw a pic­ture of her dream – a squig­gle is fine – and to tell you what’s hap­pen­ing. You could say, ‘You were be­ing chased by a mon­ster? What hap­pened next?’ Then en­cour­age her to find a pos­i­tive end to the story – maybe she es­caped or be­came friends with the mon­ster.” And re­mem­ber that all those dreams, good and bad, are serv­ing a pur­pose, and grow­ing her brain. From dream­ing about the thud of your heart­beat while she was in your womb, and milk-filled dreams as a new­born, to tod­dler ad­ven­tures with Peppa Pig, her dreams are help­ing her make sense of the world.


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