Your baby dreams more than you! Discover what her night-time adventures are all about
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.
WHY DOES SHE DREAM SO MUCH?
“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!
WHAT’S IN HER DREAMS?
“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.
HELP HER DEAL WITH DREAMS
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.