Adults dream during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and infants have loads of REM. So, it might be fair to assume that babies have tons of dreams. Perhaps they conjure up huge smiling faces, giant-tongued dogs licking their toes, and breasts the size of blimps gushing sweet, warm milk. Of course, babies can’t speak, so it’s impossible to guess what they’re dreaming, or even know if they’re dreaming at all. But what are older kids’ dreams like?
Psychologist David Foulkes studies children (from tots to teens) to bring the secrets of their dreams to the light of day. In his lab, he lets kids fall asleep and then wakes them 3 times a night — sometimes in REM and sometimes in NREM — and asks them to describe what they recall.
Foulkes’s findings are surprising…in how unsurprising they are. Basically, little kids have little dreams. But exactly what kids see while dreaming depends on their age. As children develop and grow, their dreams do too.
Age 5 and Under
Toddler dreams are usually just snapshots, looking much more like a slide show than a movie, when compared to the dreams of adults.
They heavily feature animals and other familiar sights, like images of people eating. According to Foulkes, “Children’s dream life…seems to be similar to their waking imagination and narration,” he explains in his study, Children’s Dreaming and the Development of Consciousness. “Animals carry human concerns and readily become objects of identification.”
Understandably, dreams can confuse small kids. Pre-schoolers often think their dreams are magically placed in their heads by someone else, or by God.
Ages 5 to 7
In this age range, kids begin seeing moving images and characters in action. Dreams now include multiple events strung together, one after the other. Kids start developing greater ability to remember dreams. Still, that’s not always the case: When roused during REM sleep, 25% of the kids in Foulkes’ studies had no recollection of dreaming, a trend that continues through age 9.
Are you wondering what your kids are doing in their dreams? Good question, but the answer is…nothing! The “character of the self” hasn’t even made an appearance yet!
Drumroll please…Generally around age 8, children appear as central characters in their dreams. Dream narratives become more complex and longer. Not only do kids participate in the action as it unfolds, they also have thoughts and feelings within the dream. While dreaming continues to evolve somewhat through the teenage years, Foulkes concludes that 9-year-olds are relatively mature dreamers!
So, Who Has the Sweetest Dreams of All?
It turns out that kids, on the balance, have happier dreams than adults. Foulkes found grown-up dreams often contain aggression and misfortune. In contrast, children’s dreams are embroidered with positive emotions.
Here’s wishing you and your children sweet dreams tonight!
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