Do Newborns Have Nightmares? My Startling Discovery
As I was researching the other day about infantile dreams, I came across a thought-provoking article, which I would like to share with you today.
For the longest time, when someone asks, “Do newborns have nightmares?” or “Do babies have dreams?” I would always respond with, “Who knows?”
But upon reading this journal article, I felt different emotions. I felt both fear and relief.
Fear because it could be true and relief because if it were true, then perhaps we can prevent the horrifying results.
Anyway, here’s the startling discovery I have.
Do newborns have nightmares?
But before I expound on that, let’s talk about dreams first.
According to science, dreams happen during the REM phase or the Rapid Eye Movement. When researchers compare the instances of REM between adults and newborns, it turned out that the latter go through REM more often than adults. Even as early as the first day of their life on earth, they already have multiple REM phases.
So let’s do a little math (or logic, whatever).
If dreams occur during the REM phase and newborns go through the phase several times, it could be that babies do have dreams.
But dreams could not be the only ones they go through. Here’s where it gets more interesting.
G. A. Christos hypothesized that the answer to the question--Do newborns have nightmares--could be yes AND it could be one of the causes of SIDS.
Let me explain further.
Newborn Nightmares and SIDS
The reason Christos came up with this hypothesis is that
“the infant dreaming hypothesis is consistent with the known facts about SIDS.”
Fact and Presumption #1:
The cause of SIDS is unknown although we see plenty of articles pointing at suffocation or strangulation caused by loose items in the infant’s bed.
What is certain is that SIDS is a result of irreversible respiratory cessation during sleep. This then results in broken blood vessels in the lungs and heart. This is due to respiratory failure and hypoxia or the deficiency of oxygen.
Aside from the broken blood vessels, SIDS infants also have an increased level of hemoglobin. The reason for this finding is also unknown as of the time the article was published.
The author presumes it’s caused by the dreams deceiving the brain to produce more hemoglobin. It’s much like being deceived to pee because in the dream we are peeing. However, this presumption remains a presumption.
Fact and Presumption #2:
Infants come equipped with mechanisms that can detect a fall in oxygen and a rise in carbon dioxide while they are asleep. These mechanisms are expected to wake up your baby and resume breathing.
However, we are left asking why these mechanisms do not function during SIDS. Is it because the dreaming brain is once again deceived?
One may argue that the newborn is probably suffocated but the same article reports there are SIDS infants who don’t show signs of struggle commonly associated with suffocation. There are also reports that some infants die while in the arms of their mother.
Fact and Presumption #3:
SIDS is most common among infants aged 2 to 3 months. REM during that time has also decreased.
The possible explanation for this, according to Christos, is that this age is when our infants are already dreaming and possibly having nightmares. The REM episodes during the first few weeks could be the period when the brain connections are being completed.
Once the synaptic connections are almost complete, our infants start dreaming and/or having nightmares. The latter, then, can cause SIDS as explained above.
The author concluded that his hypothesis is consistent with the facts of SIDS; however, we should remember that this remains a hypothesis. It cannot be clinically tested due to ethical considerations.
What this tells us, however, is that if the hypothesis is true, the best thing we can do as parents is to ensure our babies are sleeping in the best environment. Also, co-sleeping seems to be the best way to monitor our newborns--whether it’s done the Japanese way or with the help of co-sleepers.
Dr. Greene Agrees
Dr. Alan Greene, a physician and TEDx speaker, believes that babies do have dreams and nightmares, too.
In fact, he even mentioned that REM sleep waves have been detected at 28 weeks of gestations. By 30 weeks, eye movements are also detectable.
However, contrary to Christos’ hypothesis, Dr. Greene thinks babies have more nightmares during the first six weeks of life (also the time when REM phase occurs more frequently); hence, our little ones cry more often.
The Opposing View
According to a neuroscientist named Fabian van den Berg, we don’t exactly know what’s going on in our babies’ heads while they’re sleeping.
Yes, they go through the REM phase just like us, adults, but that doesn’t mean they are dreaming or having a nightmare.
So for van der Berg, the answer to the questions “Do newborns have nightmares?” and “Do babies have dreams?” is “We can’t really say.”
We do not have the device (yet) that translates brain signals into something visual.
What we can conclude from these contradicting views is that newborns and babies undergo REM phases--not just one but a lot.
Do newborns have nightmares or do babies have dreams? We can’t tell for now. We can’t ask them when they wake up or even when they grow older.
Although there are pieces of evidence that show our little ones’ movements while sleeping are similar to the ones we do while dreaming, we can’t automatically assume they are dreaming.
What we can do, instead, is to make sure our babies are sleeping in a safe environment. We have created a comprehensive list of how exactly you can do that--from choosing the right sleep essentials, dealing with the witching hour, to the best temperature for your baby.
You can also see in that list some worrying movements your baby does while sleeping.