It is easy to believe that with their fertile imaginations, and the large amount of time they spend sleeping, that children dream a lot. In fact, studies show that we start dreaming as early as 4 weeks of gestation (Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology, 1975; 38:175) and REM sleep waves have been found at as early as 28 weeks of gestation, and REM sleep waves accompanied by the eye movements of dreams by 30 weeks of gestation (Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine in the Child, WB Saunders, 1995). We all begin our dreaming life before we are even born!
We dream more in the first 2 weeks of life than at any other time. The visual part of the brain is more active during newborn REM sleep than during adult sleep, which may indicate more visual dreams.
Infants 3 to 5 months old dream much more than infants 6 to 12 months old do. 18-month-olds dream almost twice as much as 3-year-olds do. By age 3, the amount of time spent dreaming per night is in the same range as that of young adults. As the wheel of time turns throughout life, each year we dream a little less (Science, 1966; 152:604).*
While we can’t know what a baby dreams of, we can learn much from the dreams of children. Children will usually remember their dreams and describe them vividly. Parents and carers would do well to pay attention to these fantastic tales of night-time adventures from children who are old enough to talk about them, for many reasons:
1. Sharing a dream is a trust building exercise that helps to form bonds intimacy of between the teller and the listener, and this is especially true for children. By showing that what goes on in their head is important, and not “just” a dream, helps children to understand that other things going on their heads, their personal thoughts and feelings, also have value. This can help when adults want to talk about other areas of the child’s life.
2. Talking about dreams can help develop language and communication skills. Trying to relate the fantastic and extraordinary things that go on in dreams can stretch a child’s vocabulary. As caring adults we can help by gently suggesting new words and helping them to expand upon their ideas. Young children also often struggle to explain a sequence of events or relate a clear narrative, talking about the “story” of dream, and what happened next can be a great practice at the art of telling a tale, and thereby develop communication.
3. As adults and carers we can learn a lot about what is going on in the mind of a child by the content and emotion of their dreams. While dreams of big monsters and hairy animals are entirely normal and nothing to be alarmed about, talking to a child about disturbing aspects of their dreams can be a useful way to address their fears and worries. Children often over-hear adult conversations, catch snippets of the news or see other media out of context, and this can set their young imaginations firing. When images appear in their dreams, this can be a helpful and gentle way to open up a conversation about wider issues like home life, school and even the world at large. In this way we can potentially address budding worries before they become larger troublesome fears. Often a simple explanation and kind reassurance is all a child needs (no, we will never send you to live under the stairs like Harry Potter, and I think even if our dog could talk he would tell us that he actually likes to eat dog food etc)
4. Talking about dreams and inner life is healthy and good for all of us! But this is especially true for children who can develop their creativity and problem solving skills, explore their imaginations, develop their sense of self knowledge and enhance their inherent sense of self worth.
So next time a child starts to tell you about their incredible fabulous convoluted dream, try to have a little patience and not dismiss their dreams as unimportant, or not grow frustrated as they struggle with words and sentences to describe it. The skills they can gain from sharing their dreams with you can last them for the rest of their lives. And that is a gift worth be patient for, don’t you think?
Image courtesy of [Stuart Miles] / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of [janoon028] / FreeDigitalPhotos.net