Scientists have reason to think that even the tiniest babies dream. The regions of the brain that control dream sleep develop early and become fully functional even before birth. We don’t know exactly what children see in their sleep, but certainly we can make guesses based on how their thinking and imagination develop as the months and years go on. If your little one has started to have nightmares, it’s important to know that it’s a normal part of development and there are ways to help keep a few nights of scary dreams from turning into something bigger.
Babies spend a lot more time dreaming than adults. After seven months in the womb (and until about three months of age) a baby spends 50 percent of its time in REM sleep, the stage where most dreaming takes place. Dr. Said Shanawani, a neurologist and sleep specialist, explains that REM is controlled by the brainstem, which is one of the first regions of the nervous system to come online. The brain in REM is like the waking brain: active and constantly processing information. This is why scientists believe it’s vital to a child’s development. A fetus might dream about the muffled sound of his mom’s voice or the filtered light that makes its way in through her belly. A newborn might dream about the faces and shapes she’s learning. In fact, scientists have shown that an infant’s visual cortex is highly active in sleep, so baby dreams could be especially vivid.
Even though we know that babies have the mental machinery for dream sleep, it’s hard to say if they have nightmares. Babies do have the capacity to form memories in the early months, so even a three-month-old has experiences stored up, and there’s no reason to think that the discomforts of babyhood (being cold or wet, Mom taking too long to heat the bottle) wouldn’t be fair game for dreams. But these should be distinguished from what are called “night terrors” - a completely separate phenomenon occurring in non-REM sleep, in which the child cries or screams, cannot be woken, and has no memory of the event later.
Nightmares typically become more of an issue around age two or three. Yes, this is when kids have the language to describe them to us, but it’s also when children start to grasp the concept that bad things do happen in life, according to Jodi Mindell, associate director of sleep disorders at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. By the preschool years, kids have a sense that there are risks and dangers out there, and their fears about the world can come out in the stories they create at night.
Another reason preschoolers are visited by the boogieman is that their brains are developing the capacity for imagination and creativity. Starting around 18 months - coinciding with the burgeoning use of language - toddlers start to put concepts together and think symbolically. The frontal lobes are connecting and processing more conscious and abstract thoughts. The same leaps in cognition that lead to tea parties, dress up, and elaborate cities of trains and Lego buildings also make it possible for children’s brains to form bizarre and unsettling stories while they’re asleep.
Bad dreams are completely normal for young children, but because we know how unsettling our own dreams can be, it’s natural for us to worry. Mindell recommends supporting the child during the day and holding boundaries after dark, because a series of scary night-wakings can quickly snowball. She recommends teaching the child a proactive way to conquer a bad dream so that they feel in control: make a “dreamcatcher” together and hang it over the bed, draw pictures of the nightmare and crumple them up, or tell your child that they can flip their pillow over if they have a bad dream and it “changes the channel.” And she advises that you keep your child in his room and reassure him there; don’t get in the habit of letting him sleep with you many nights in a row. Send calm, confident messages to your little sleepers that they are secure. Let them know that the waking world is a safe place where things will make a lot more sense.