In my experience as a mom, bedtime has been the great equalizer: any remains of a tough day simply evaporate once my little ones are sighing softly in their sleep.
This antidote, bedtime that is, really came in handy with my firstborn—a beautiful but fiery newborn caught in the clutches of a bad case of colic. She’d scream and I’d sob, but by day’s end, all would be forgotten. And then I’d hold my sweet angel of a baby in my arms and watch the rise and fall of that tiny chest, wondering what in the world was going through her mind.
In all those blissful hours, was my baby dreaming? Is that a thing a baby can even do?
Dr. Jenny Bauer, a board-certified physician in sleep medicine, pediatrics, and internal medicine, told me it’s unlikely my baby ever made it to dreamland. She explained that dreaming takes place in the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep, when the body is still but the brain is active. Physiologically, infants are wired to sleep in short bursts. What’s frustrating and exhausting to parents is a survival mechanism for babies. They wake every few hours to eat and, as a result, avoid long periods of deep sleep.
But Dr. Bauer explained that, while babies experience more REM sleep than adults, it may not mean they are actually using it to dream. “The generally accepted thought is that until babies become little kids and acquire the ability to imagine things visually and spatially, they actually do not have the ability to dream,” Dr. Bauer said.
Of course, there is no way to know for certain whether our youngest children are dreaming, because they don’t have the ability to communicate it to us. Dr. Bauer added that even when a toddler describes what may sound like a dream, it could be that they are simply relaying thoughts they had while either falling asleep or waking up.
“When we see babies twitching and smiling, and sometimes even softly chuckling or whimpering in their sleep, I believe it’s a sign of their brains maturing and creating pathways to help them develop all the fun and exciting skills as they grow,” Dr. Bauer said.
All that being said, there have been nights when I am convinced my youngest is in the throes of a nightmare. I wake up to high-pitched, seemingly terrified screaming and an accompanying grip around my neck that says, “Don’t ever leave me alone, Mom.” So, could it be possible that babies experience nightmares?
Again, Dr. Bauer said no. What we as parents read as desperate cries are baby’s way of alerting us to their needs, whether that is hunger, a dirty diaper, or the need for middle of the night connection.
Read More: I’m a New Mom—Will I Ever Sleep Again?