While we may have an elaborate dream life as adults, it seems we develop the ability to have rich and vivid dreams as we grow – children start off having relatively simple dreams that become more complex throughout childhood.
Below is an excerpt from a scientific review article on ‘dreaming and the brain’, shortly to be published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, that addresses how our dream life changes and develops during our early years.
One of the criticisms of these findings might be that dreams seem less complex in younger children because their language isn’t rich enough to describe them fully. However, there is good evidence against this idea – the complexity of dreams is not strongly related to verbal ability, although it is to the vividness of the child’s mental imagery.
When do children start dreaming, and what kind of dreams do they have? Given that children often show signs of emotion in sleep, many assume that they dream a great deal. However, a series of studies by David Foulkes showed that children under the age of 7 reported dreaming only 20% of the time when awakened from REM sleep, compared with 80‚Äì90% in adults.
Preschoolers‚Äô dreams are often static and plain, such as seeing an animal or thinking about eating. There are no characters that move, no social interactions, little feeling, and they do not include the dreamer as an active character. There are also no autobiographic, episodic memories, perhaps because children have trouble with conscious episodic recollection in general, as suggested by the phenomenon of infantile amnesia.
Preschoolers do not report fear in dreams, and there are few aggressions, misfortunes and negative emotions. Children who have night terrors, in which they awaken early during the night from SWS [slow-wave sleep] and display intense fear and agitation, are probably terrorized by disorientation owing to incomplete awakening rather than by a dream. Thus, although children of age 2‚Äì5 years can see and speak of everyday people, objects and events, they apparently cannot dream of them.
Between the ages of 5‚Äì7 years, dream reports become longer, although they are still infrequent. Dreams might contain sequences of events in which characters move about and interact, but narratives are not well developed. At around 7 years of age, dream reports become longer and more frequent, contain thoughts and feelings, the child’s self becomes an actual participant in the dream, and dreams begin to acquire a narrative structure and to reflect autobiographic, episodic memories.
It could be argued that perhaps all children dream, but some do not yet realize that they are dreaming, do not remember their dreams, or cannot report them because of poor verbal skills. Contrary to these intuitive suggestions, dream recall was found to correlate best with abilities of mental imagery rather than with language proficiency… Put simply, it is children with the most developed mental imagery and visuo-spatial skills (rather than verbal or memory capabilities) that report the most dreams, suggesting a real difference in dream experience.
I’ve removed the numeric references for ease of reading, but you can find the full research sources in the original article.