Do Babies Dream?

As a father watches his newborn baby sleep, he wonders one thing: Do babies dream?

face of dreaming baby

"Our children may be ours. They may owe us everything, but from the second they are born some things are theirs alone."

Photo by Flickr/A. Pagliaricci

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By the glow of my computer screen, as she slept in my lap, my daughter’s eyes were in motion. They darted back and forth under their lids, like the eyes of someone who is dreaming. “But she is dreaming,” I thought a second later. “Of course she is.”

On the night she was born, Moriah was having her first dream, ex utero. It was one more behavior—like sighing, and yawning, and clinging to the nearest person in a time of need—that conveyed how completely human she was, a third of the way into her first day spent alive, just hours after she was pulled out of her mother and given, grunting and frowning, to me.

What do babies dream about?

But what could she possibly dream about? I have been reproached more than once for not having seen enough of the world, not having lived through extraordinary things or gone to exotic places, and I am 31 years old. Here was someone who in her whole life had seen no more than four rooms in a hospital. The company she kept was confined to her parents and a handful of nurses. What had this infant to draw on, to produce the dreams that came to her in my lap?

I turned to the online message board Yahoo! Answers, where someone else had asked my question, five years before, concerning a daughter of her own. “Her short life so far has been confined to a humidicrib,” she wrote. “I’m sure she dreams: she grimaces and smiles and wriggles around and you can see her eyes moving under their lids. What on earth could she be dreaming about?”

“Nursing,” someone answered with apparent confidence, citing as evidence the “sucking motions” her own baby made as she slept. I found this unconvincing. I have been grinding my teeth every night in my sleep for so many years that their enamel is almost gone, but it doesn’t mean I dream about grinding my teeth. I dream of being assaulted and disappointing my loved ones.

Several people cited magazine articles confirming that babies do dream, in case we were in doubt. Someone suggested they dream of “abstract things,” adding, “I sometimes have dreams where I see nothing but a field of one color and just feel a specific emotion without reason.”

Someone named Feng-Yi speculated, “Baby must be dreaming something happy.” But I could not agree with Feng-Yi less. Why would a baby like Moriah have happy dreams? Just hours before, she had been taken by surprise from her mother’s womb, by an unkempt surgeon from Rhode Island, then splayed under a hot lamp and drained of fluids by nurses wielding long tubes and a plastic paddle. Here she was in the arms of her father, a stranger who watched her face for signs of what went on inside her brand new brain. Her life had not yet lasted one full day, and I was already planning to write about her without her permission. Her lot could have been worse, but I see little in this that might inspire something other than at least a mild nightmare.

As I continued to watch Moriah, she made a series of facial expressions. For a long moment, she looked frightened, her brow furrowed and her mouth tight, but then her face broke out in a smile.

“Her mommy?” guessed someone called Jamie J, who then proposed more dream subjects: “Milk? Dry diapers?” She concluded by writing, “I’d like to think they dream about the sweetest things that we don’t know about.”

Of all the answers offered, this was my least favorite, this insinuation that the eight-hour-old in my arms knew sweetnesses beyond my comprehension—I, a grown man who had, among other things in his ordinary life, married for love, been present for the birth of his first child, had some orgasms, and eaten ice cream, which far exceeded Moriah’s catalogue of joys. An answer far more appealing was written by someone with a question mark where her name should have been. She wrote, “i didn’t even know babies dream but i’m sure they do, since they are people too.”

Nearly all of us who arrived at this page have one thing in common: we have looked on our sleeping newborns’ faces as they wrinkled their foreheads and rolled their eyes under our gazes, and we did not believe what we were seeing. It has baffled us, that as soon as they are born they can be so whole as to do in their sleep what we do in ours.

We attempt, feebly, with the help of strangers, to make sense of our dreaming offspring. But there are no answers on Yahoo! Answers to the questions we ask. Our children may be ours. They may owe us everything, but from the second they are born some things are theirs alone.

Robert Long Foreman is a writer and assistant professor of English at Rhode Island College. He recently won a Pushcart Prize for his story “Cadiz, Missouri” published in Agni. Reprinted from Pleiades (34.1), a bi-annual literary journal of poetry, fiction, and essays published by the University of Central Missouri.