Friday, June 16, 2006

Do Three-Year-Olds Dream?

Three- and four-year-old children have REM sleep, the stage of sleep most associated, in adults, with vivid, narrative dreams. It's natural to suppose they also dream. But do they?

My son Davy, at four, only very rarely claimed to dream -- despite my wife's repeatedly asking him about his dreams (she was trained as a psychotherapist!) -- and when he did confess to a dream, his reports were suspicious for a number of reasons: vague, short, and often just a repetition of something he had claimed to dream before. I'd say about half Davy's dream reports were simply this: "the house was full of popcorn", with no further elaboration to be coaxed from him.

Usually Davy claimed not to have slept at all. He generally seemed to have no awareness of the night's passing while he slept -- a fact that continually surprised my wife and me, given how sophisticated he was about many other things. No reference to clocks, the sun, to our seeing him lying still for hours, etc., could persuade him otherwise.

David Foulkes (e.g., in his 1999 book) systematically woke three- to five-year-old children during REM sleep and found that they generally denied dreaming. If they did give dream reports, those reports were generally short and suspect in a variety of ways. He argues that dreaming is a skill that develops, much as visual imagery is a skill that develops. (There is at least a little evidence that young children are pretty bad at visual imagery.) This would make sense if dreaming is just a form of (visually and otherwise) imagining (see Jonathan Ichikawa's interesting discussion of this).

Now I don't know. Children not dreaming? That's kind of hard to swallow. But I've begun to doubt.


Jonathan said...

Wow, this is really interesting.

Any tips as to where to read up on this?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Start with Foulkes 1999. Foulkes is definitely the leading figure on this, with a long series of books and articles.

I'd be interested to hear your take.

Jack Darach said...

My (now 7 month old) son has occasionally let out a mighty scream in his sleep, at night, sometimes during a day nap, sometimes observed but usually when no-one is with him. Given that the times when we've been with him and he does this we can tell that he's not just scratched himself what explanation can we give but a bad dream?

At least, that's what we like think. But if 3 yr olds don't dream, then a 7 month baby won't dream either. No doubt there's another explanation out there, but thinking of him dreaming, albeit in a knightmare, is better than thinking he's in pain for some other reason.

Best wishes,

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Jack!

What could it be, if not a dream? Some possibilities come to mind: that there's some emotional disregulation that can occur in sleep, without any dream content; that the fear comes only after waking (maybe or maybe not involving the eyes opening and the baby's staying awake); that it's a random, disinhibited movement, as when our bodies twitch at night.

Nightmare is the perhaps most natural and appealing possibility; but I don't think it's the only one.

Pete Mandik said...

I find children at that age to be really weird with episodic memory in general, so I wonder how much of the oddness of their dream reports is due to that.

My daughter, who's almost four, reports some pretty elaborate dreams. I must admit, though, that it often seems like she's making it up on the spot. Not sure how to test that hunch.

P.S. My android dreams of electric sheep.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes Pete, I wonder, too, how much of it is a memory thing. Foulkes claims that in the three- to five-year-old range, dream reporting does not correlate with general cognitive abilities or with maturity. If this is true, that might support the idea that it's confabulation at work in your four-year-old.

Here's a potential test of the confabulation idea: Have some salient, novel objects in the environment around the child when she wakes up. If those are included in the dream report, you can be pretty sure you've got confabulation.

P.S. Mine plays the mood organ.

lelsey said...

My three year old step daughter has just recently woken (once or twice)very sad and crying that 'all her toys have gone, someboy has taken them'. She has toys in her room which she can see when she wakes. Seems she is dreaming?
Or could feeling upset/sad, doesnt know why, so jut says 'toys sre gone'?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Foulkes might suggest this: She's waking up with a mood or thought, but not really a narrative dream.

RCB said...

My 3yr old son occassionally tells us things that happen when he was asleep (dreams)and we typically ascribe these to confabulation for the reasons discussed above (cues from the environment). However, a few days ago, after a restless nights sleep he told my wife (without prompting) at the breakfast table that when he was sleeping someone came and opened up his head and put needles in his brain! He does not watch TV that could have given him such an idea, nor have my wife or I had conversations about such topics. I tend to think that this must have been a dream. Your thoughts?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting dream report. I have no idea! Foulkes might not object too much to this report, though, since the dream doesn't have much of a narrative structure.

Anonymous said...

my son woke up saying that he was at the store and there was a fire outside. I said then what happened? and he said, then i woke up.

he is 3

he dreams

I never asked about his dreams before

if thats not dreaming, then how do we know for sure ANYONE is dreaming. Maybe they are all just making it up too for all you really know. Or maybe these studies are dreams. Wake up.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Again, not much of a narrative structure. But of course long narratives aren't three-year-old's strength in general!

(On you last remark: I keep trying to wake up, but I seem to remain stuck in this imperfect world.... ;) )

Anonymous said...

my 2 year old dreams. she talks in her sleep. The things she says mirror the things she is learning/struggling with during the day. Take her "No'' stage around 1.7 years, for instance. She would yell out, "NO!!!!!" in her sleep. Then, around 1.10 years old, she went through the "mine" stage and would yell out "that's mine!!!" Most recently, at age 2.1, I have had to calm her from a disturbing "phobic" dream. She was almost sleepwalking during this dream, completely horrified that there was "MUD EVERYWHERE! I've got to clean up! Messy!!!"....she was trying to get out of bed, and was quite distressed. I had to tell her "all the mud is gone. there is no mud. It's ok. Mommy cleaned it all up."....she is really sensitive to certain messy things, cat hair on the rug, being one of them!!! I liken this to the "eccentric/phobic 2 year old" stage. Actually, she was whispering in her sleep a minute ago......she is HIGHLY verbal for her age......SOOOOO, it is SILLY to say that little ones don't dream: dreams follow the cognitive development of that particular child. If a synapse is used during the day, it can be triggered at night, resulting in dreams unique to that particular child........ DUH.

Anonymous said...

I have a guestion about a 3year old dream and a memory...and your the only person that it keep pulling your name.. I ll ask you the question if you repaly

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I doubt I'll be able to say anything very helpful, but feel free to ask!

Anonymous said...

my four year old sister wakes up during naps and is always crying.
any ideas why?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Dec 30: I don't have any more than ordinary parental expertise on that question, I'm afraid. One possiblity is that she feels a little abandoned and would rather sleep with mom or dad.

Anonymous said...

My little girl just turned 3. She dreams almost every night. She is very detailed when she tells me about them. She had one dream about a little door that was by her bed and on the other side was a pirate ship. She said that her daddy went in but she couldnt because she didnt know how to fly. She was getting upset telling me this and even brought me to her room to show me where the little door was. Three year olds do dream. At least...mine does.

Lupe Bonilla said...

How come we catch the little humans laughing or smiling during their sleep.

Lupe Bonilla said...

My 3 year old laughs and smiles in her sleep, sometimes talks rarely though. Im going to start asking her every morning we wake up if she has dreamt.