The dream life of children

Photo by Flickr user Grace. Click for sourceWhile 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 80–90% in adults.

Preschoolers’ 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 2–5 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.

Link to PubMed entry for article.
Link to DOI entry for same.

9 thoughts on “The dream life of children”

  1. I suppose that such strongly worded expressions as “dreams (…) do not include the dreamer as an active character” or “preschoolers do not report fear in dreams” might be appropriate in a press release, but as a part of a scientific article they are entirely invalidated even by a single example that proves them wrong. As it happens, all of the recurring nightmares from my early childhood involved me as a central and active character. Here’s the earliest I remember: I’m in my bed, a huge dark shape with a single orange eye slowly approaches me until I decide to put an end to it by moving away until my head reaches the end of the bed to be instantly snatched by the monsters hiding under it. I am sure of my age at that time (under 3 years) because this dream stopped coming back when we moved to another place in 1972.
    As you probably might guess, I’m quite happy that these nightmares ended when I reached the adult age.

  2. Very interesting study, although I felt compelled to share from my own experience.
    I have distinct memories which dispute these findings and suggest to me that children may indeed be having complex dream experiences, but lack the facility to articulate them. Unless, of course, I’m a freak.
    One dream in particular I can remember occurred when I was 5. I can say my age with relative confidence, as I can remember where I was on waking; we moved house almost every year in my youth, so remembering the house confirms the year.
    This dream involved complex emotions, had a strong narrative and series of events, involved myself as a character in both third-person and first-person perspective and had a strong, complex environmental setting. More importantly, on waking I recall that this wasn’t the first intense nightmare I’d ever had.
    The dream itself involved an alien invasion. Humans didn’t fight back effectively, and we were being enslaved. The strongest memory of the dream begins as I was standing in a queue outside a pavillion with hundreds of other people. It was a very hot day, and I was exhausted. I felt curious and apprehensive.
    As we stepped into the pavillion, I saw the room was a vibrant pink colour. The aliens were classic ‘greys’, tall and thin. Humans were being pushed into a cattle-style run. An alien would stand behind the victim and thrust a long needle into their spine, which pushed clean through their abdomen. There was almost no mess or waste, as the needle was very thin, but the spine was clearly punctured as the victim would lose control of their legs.
    As I watched this happen to people, I became very agitated. I tried to run, but was shoved back into the queue by guarding aliens. Up until the moment I was pushed into the run, I had been observing everything from a third-person perspective. Now, I was suddenly back in first-person, crying and screaming.
    The needle was pushed into my spine. I remember a moment of sharp pain, and then a sickening, cold numbness spreading down the lower half of my body.
    I awoke moments later, with a dull ache still in my spine.
    For several years after this dream, I had a strong aversion to the colour pink.
    I know this is all anecdotal, and I’m aware that studies are just studies and not hard facts, but I thought you might find this interesting in any case.
    Keep up the good work, and thanks for all the fascinating reading!

  3. “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.” (caps mine)
    …sorry i don’t buy it…my brother had night terrors AND reported that he was being chased by monsters…which also refutes the idea that young children are not participants in their dreams…
    i also remember having frightening dreams about being sucked up by the street sweeper…i was under five at the time…i continued to have that dream though grade school…

  4. My 3 year old has been dreaming since the day she was born via emergency C section which begs the question was she sleeping when pulled from the womb? As a baby she would wake terrified & crying but as time & verbal skills mature she screams for mummy & daddy then “leave my teddy” “i never got a cake” “don’t do that” etc etc whilst crying her wee heart out & none have reference to events of the days preceeding. Never quite night terrors but frighteningly close.

  5. My child also has these terrible nightmares where his whole body shakes, he screams and crys. He has had them from 6 months old and seems to be getting worse. He is 3 now dose anybody have any ideas as what to do?

  6. My 3 and a half year old has had dreams since being very young. Now he can talk I know they are complex and involve everything from bugs coming out of eggs and crawling on him, to goats eating his foot, a spider, someone else eating his babybell cheese, his brother having something of his etc. He cries with fear, cries with disappointment and even belly laughs when having a good dream. Don’t tell me young children don’t have complex dreams!

  7. My daughter (2 1/2) dreams and reports dreams – last night it was flies on her face! So sort of a nightmare – in the middle of the night. Two days ago it was jumping with her cousins on a beach. Pretty episodic.

    My first memory is a jealousy dream of my sister’s birth – so I can date it, I must have been just 4. It was a dream about being chased by a cartoon dragon who followed me home, to my mother’s room, whereupon she said “Don’t kill my baby! Take Luke instead!” I was flamed and awoke immediately 😀

    So I think there are some exceptions 😉

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