boy sleeping My youngest had a dream a few months ago. In it he was a giant marshmallow (or maybe it was just about a giant marshmallow). Not necessarily clairvoyance or genius coming out here, but a monumental dream nonetheless. The reason: it was the first dream he remembered and reported to us at the breakfast table unprompted. It stuck with me (can you imagine dreaming about marshmallows and balloons and robots –these are things I hear about from my boys). I mean, do you remember the first thing you dreamed about that stuck through until morning? Some think of nighttime dreams as telling subtle stories of those we enjoy, facilitating memories we cherish or unleashing and un-roofing things we worry about it. I’ve also heard people opine that dreams are threads of life we need “to process” more. Reality is, we may know very little, scientifically speaking, about dreams, especially for our children.

The definition of dreaming is: “a universal human experience occurring during sleep in which fictive events follow one another in an organized, story-like manner and into which are woven hallucinatory, primarily visual, images that are largely congruent with an ongoing confabulated plot.” It’s been proven that those images tend to become more bizarre the longer we sleep, but does the actual act of dreaming have a link to child development? When and why do children dream and what do we know about it? I have been wondering…

Thankfully, sleep expert, the lovely Dr. Maida Chen weighs in. Here’s a quick back and forth we had about dreams. Stunning stuff she shares so well here…

The Meaning of Dreaming

Mama Doc: At what age do children typically detail/remember that they have their first dream? Was my guy “typical at age 5?”

Dr. Chen: It’s unknown when they actually have their first dream. There’s no reason to think that it doesn’t happen as an infant to some degree since they have so much proportionately more REM sleep. However, their ability to verbally provide recall of that dream is what is critical in the definition of a dream and that depends on the verbal development of the child.

A toddler screaming “go away bad” in the middle of the night may be having dream recall, (or may be having a non-dream related night terror). An infant waking up crying or laughing may be having dream recall as well, but that’s their only form of verbal communication!

This makes me laugh out loud; I fully remember watching my babies giggle to themselves while they slept. How delightful to think they could have been dreaming. So I wonder, can dreams help parents better understand their child’s sleep patterns?

Probably in a very limited way. The majority of REM sleep occurs in the last 1/3 of the night (the early morning hours right before awakening for the day). The most dream recall occurs from REM sleep, so if kids are constantly coming into mom and dad’s room at 5AM saying I had a bad dream, this is entirely likely and to some extent suggestive of a typical sleep stage distribution. That being said, REM is not the only time you dream, but recall and imagery from REM sleep is heightened, which is why dreams get weirder as the night goes on.

This is a map of "sleep architecture." The architecture is really a graph of the brain activity through the night showing the cycling  from one stage to another over time as we sleep. When charted it looks like a skyline, hence the name "sleep architecture."

This is a map of “sleep architecture.” The architecture is really a graph of the brain activity through the night showing the cycling from one stage to another, over time, as we sleep. When charted it looks like a skyline, hence the name “sleep architecture.”















Makes sense, I suppose, and it’s certainly after great night sleep that I’ll often have the pleasure to remember my dreams, especially for flying (my favorite type of dream I’ve had only rarely). What’s the thinking regarding the purpose of dreaming from a health/restoration standpoint?

Memory consolidation is currently a leading theory, the idea being that less restoration/repair means more consolidation of what has been learned (and hence then committed to memory) the day prior. Mood regulation is also a theory (that those who dream are better regulated). But basically, nobody knows for sure.

In clinic, families have asked me about using dreams as a way to make sure kids are getting “good sleep.” If a parents says, “my child doesn’t remember her dreams,” should they be concerned?

This is probably not an issue. Basically, there is no way to actually prove scientifically if somebody is dreaming. In a lab setting, you can frequently wake somebody out of certain stages of REM and non-REM sleep and immediately ask “what were you dreaming” to see what their recall is. Clearly, to get a response requires (1) enough verbal ability to communicate that story-line (2) enough cognitive ability to realize it was a story and not reality (3) and the obvious of whether or not the kid was actually even dreaming at the time they were awoken!

That being said, I have patients who have sleep apnea, whose REM sleep is preferentially very disrupted – so then they undergo treatment, re-establish the ability to have consolidated REM sleep, and they have these really vivid dreams and wig out. Be careful not to equate the lack of dream recall as lack of REM sleep though, that is not necessarily true at all.

Dreaming seems an utter luxury in a busy life. Not just the daydreaming some get (if they’re lucky, while raising children) but the nighttime uncontrolled dreams. Are there certain times in our lives when we dream more?

Well, to dream, you need to sleep and then you need to recall. Kids sleep more than adults, and also have proportionally more REM sleep than adults, so kids likely dream more but their ability to communicate and our ability to scientifically evaluate are pretty limited. So who knows.