Little Kids Use Their Dreams to Figure Out Real Life

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Photo: Muriel de Seze/Getty Images

Dreams are strange, misunderstood things. This week, Science of Us will be exploring the latest research that helps explain what they are, what they might mean, and how they affect our waking lives.

Like ducklings who imprint on the first animal they see, people will often view life experiences through the lens of the first time they did or felt or saw something. Your first time dealing with death, your first time falling in love, your first heartbreak — all those firsts become landmarks, pieces of the past that we return to again and and again to help us navigate the present.

And often, dreams work the same way as those real-life firsts: They’re rehearsals and live runs at the same time, prepping us for and ultimately shaping our future waking moments. “Some of the dreams we have in childhood become lifelong touchstones of emotion and feeling and identity,” says psychologist Kelly Bulkeley, author of several books on dreaming, including Dreamcatching: Every Parent’s Guide to Exploring and Understanding Children’s Dreams and Nightmares. “We face a new situation, and our minds cast about and go back to that earlier situation for some guidance or a framework of meaning for what’s going on now.”

“Childhood dreams are the early anticipations of some of the big existential things humans deal with — sex, death, conflict, family strife,” he adds. “Children’s dreams that are so intensely memorable often have those kind of primal themes to them, that sort of blaze themselves on memory, and that’s just part of how you look at life from that point forward.”

But here’s the tricky thing about dreaming research: You’re entirely at the mercy of the dreamer. Scientists studying dreams can glean a little bit from watching a person sleep — eye movement underneath the lids, for example, can clue them in to the likelihood that a dream is happening — but otherwise, they’re completely shut out of the main event. All they can do is stand patiently by and wait to hear about what went down inside their subjects’ heads.

And things become extra tricky when you’re dealing with little kids, who can be unreliable narrators for any number of reasons. Maybe they leave out key details. Maybe they don’t have the conceptual know-how to explain what happened in a way that makes sense to adult ears. Maybe they don’t have the words. Understanding what babies and young children dream about — and even whether they dream at all — is gambling as much as science, a field based on educated guesses and leaps of faith about what it means to be a kid. Here are some of the things we know — and some of the things we likely never will.

Kids, like adults, dream what they know.

At all ages, dreams have one important thing in common: “Dreams are very accurate, in many ways, in recollecting the basic concerns and emotional issues in our lives,” Bulkeley says. “As far as we can tell, there’s a sort of template of dreaming,” a set of basic patterns that dreams tend to follow: They “tend to have more fear than happiness,” for example; they rely more on vision than any other sense; they pull in elements of the dreamer’s waking life. “But within that, individual experience sort of fills in” the details — the specific people and fears and situations that make an appearance.

And because experience shapes the direction of the dream, those in the earliest years of life — when you haven’t really had much experience at all — tend to be pretty simple. The youngest subjects in dreaming research to date are 2 years old, deemed the earliest point when kids can self-report their dreams. That landmark study, one of several conducted by psychologist David Foulkes on childhood dreaming, found that toddlers’ dreams tend to involve little more than a setting: a child taking in the scene, without action or characters to speak of.

“The youngest ones in [Foulkes’s] 2 to 4 group had dreams that often involved sleeping in some other place, like ‘I was sleeping next to a hot dog stand’ or ‘I was sleeping in my bathtub instead of my bed,’” explains Deirdre Barrett, a psychology professor at Harvard Medical School and the author of The Committee of Sleep. It’s a pattern that mirrors much of life at that age: Early in life, “children do spend more time watching adults interact as an observer,” she says, especially before they’re fully verbal. “They don’t think as much in social terms — their thinking is just simpler, and they’re less likely to be inventing a social scenario.”

Over the next few years, dreams tend to become a little more complex, in pace with social understanding, moving beyond just simple settings — but still, when something does happen, it tends to happen to the child, rather than the kid acting on his or her surroundings. Dreams that are set up like plays, in which the dreamer observes a scene without actually being in it, are also relatively common in preschool-aged children, Barrett says. In fact, Foulkes has argued in his research that kids don’t begin acting on their surroundings in dreams until around age 7 or 8, when their sense of agency is developed enough to support them as protagonists in their own narratives.

This is where things become a little contentious. Bulkeley, who has conducted his own smaller studies on young children and dreams, argues that in many cases it happens much sooner. Generally speaking, there are two schools of thought, he explains: one that believes the capacity for narrative dreaming “kicks in,” so to speak, while the other believes that capacity has been gradually developing all along.

“It’s one of those splinters in research. Some people see continuums and connection, and some people are like, ‘No, this is radically separate,’” he says. “I see little kids as very much on a continuum into adulthood.”

There’s no way to know for sure whether babies dream.

A related sticking point: Some researchers, including Foulkes, have made the case that infants likely don’t dream — that their brains have more important things to do, and that they haven’t yet experienced enough to have raw material for dreams, anyway.

On the other hand, babies’ sleep cycles have proportionately more REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, the phase where most dreaming occurs. To some, that’s evidence enough that it is. “Every indication would suggest if they’re having lots and lots of REM sleep,” Barrett says, “then they’re probably experiencing subjective dreams even more often” than they will in a few years, when they can report them. “And then it’s a reasonable guess, since dreams map onto waking experience a fair bit, that babies would be dreaming about the same objects and people and experiences that they have awake.” (Even fetuses have been shown to have REM sleep in the third trimester of pregnancy, which may suggest the possibility of fetal dreaming.) 

And because babies are learning so much so quickly, Bulkeley adds, it makes sense that their brains would turn to dreams as a way to understand it all: “Dreaming is part of how we process our experiences and make sense of them and prepare ourselves for what’s to come,” he says. For babies, “every day is bringing a wealth of new and often very challenging experiences.” 

A kid’s dream world can be a scary place — or it can be one filled with zoo animals.

Across the life cycle, frightening dreams tend to outnumber cheerful ones, possibly because the brain considers dreaming a more useful exercise when it can serve as a dress rehearsal for real-life threats.

And when you’re a kid, the world is a more threatening place — which, by extension, means you probably need some more rehearsal. “The leading theory is that children are more vulnerable,” Barrett says. “They’re in smaller bodies that aren’t as effective at saving themselves if some physical threat does come along, so nature has them a little more aroused and afraid of things.” (Or, as Bulkeley put it: “Kids are little, and the world is big, and that can be scary even in the most normal and healthy of circumstances.”)

Both Barrett and Bulkeley noted that animals — which show up much more often in kids’ dreams than in adults’ — may be so popular with young dreamers for the same reason. “Evolutionary psychologists think it might be that our brains are wired to pay attention to animals. Now, a kid is not going to get eaten by a tiger, but as human evolution was happening, large animals were a realistic threat,” Barrett explains. “We may just instinctively pay attention to animals at first, and that gets emphasized in people who are on a farm or a zoo or something, and sort of gets gradually non-reinforced for people who aren’t around animals.”

That’s not to say that all animal appearances are frightening ones. Another, more obvious explanation: Kids just spend more time with animals that adults do. Walking, talking animals populate their books and TV shows; animal characters decorate their clothes and lunchboxes; stuffed animals are tucked into bed with them at night. Adults frequently dream of animals only when animals play a significant role in their waking life — a pet owner, for example, may often dream of their dog or cat, and an animal trainer may dream of their charges. But for kids, waking life is full of animals real and imagined, and so dreaming life is, too.

The older you get, the harder it becomes to remember your dreams.

Researchers have noted that dream recall tends to improve steadily throughout childhood — possibly because, as Bulkeley explained, those dreams are recalled again and again as tools to help with waking life. But that starts changing during puberty, as the role of REM sleep in the sleep cycle begins to shrink. In the teenage years, dreams are often similarly vivid and formative, grappling with quintessentially teenage themes of identity and sexuality, but there are fewer of them; as childhood moves into adulthood, sleep becomes less deep, and dreaming a less prominent part of it. By late adolescence, Bulkeley says, the “heightened dreaming” that made up the earliest years of life has largely faded away, and “the basic patterns — how many characters appear, whether they’re friendly or aggressive interactions, things like that — start to settle into what we usually expect to find among adults.”

These changes are biological, but there are other reasons for the typical pattern of dream recall: For one thing, kids’ increasing ability to remember their dreams “may be at least partially reporting ability,” Barrett says. In other words, the curve may not be so dramatic as it appears — part of what seems like better recall may actually just be greater capacity to communicate what they dreamed.

And on the other side of the peak, “I think some of the dropoff [in dream recall] is social disinterest,” Bulkeley says. “We get socialized out of our inner worlds pretty quickly,” learning over time to give less credence to dreams and to keep them to ourselves. Think of this: Hearing a little kid describe their dream can be a funny, silly, entertaining experience; hearing about an adult acquaintance’s dream can feel like sitting through a slideshow of their vacation photos. When the dreamer is a grown-up, we just don’t care as much — and so, over time, remembering becomes less of a priority.

Which may be the greatest, cruelest irony of dream research: The more easily we can communicate our dreams to others, the more fragmented and less vivid they become. The richest ones, meanwhile, remain locked up inside tiny heads, forever inaccessible to all but the dreamer.