What is your child dreaming about?

What is your child dreaming about?

Have you ever looked at a sleeping baby and wondered what they’re dreaming about? Dr. Innessa Donskoy, a pediatric sleep medicine physician at Advocate Children’s Hospital, gives us the 411 on dreams.

“We start dreaming in utero the moment our brain begins to form in the womb. We are able to determine when unborn babies are cycling through active and nonactive sleep based on movement patterns,” Dr. Donskoy explains.

So what are babies and children dreaming about?

“Dreams are your brain’s attempt at making stories based on your experiences. Sometimes dreams are spontaneous, but they are formed from your brain trying to create logic out of the things its collected,” she says. “You cycle through dream sleep 6-8 times a night, depending on how long you’re asleep. You don’t remember every dream you have, but you usually remember the ones you wake up from.”

You spend your days collecting data – things you see, hear, feel, smell and taste. At night, your brain gets to work processing those experiences.

“During dream sleep, your brain starts firing out some of those images, sights, smells, sounds and feelings. Your prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher-level thinking, takes that input and makes stories. For example, if my brain randomly sought out the color red and my olfactory memory remembered smoke, my brain might combine those two things and create a story about fire and a fire truck,” says Dr. Donskoy.

Dreams can be extremely puzzling. Dr. Donskoy offers the following advice for discussing them with children.

  • When a dream is neutral or positive, tell your child how creative their brain is for coming up with such an interesting story.
  • If a dream is confusing but not negative, explain to your child that their brain saw or heard something and was trying to make sense of it. Help them understand this is normal and that everyone dreams.
  • If a dream is negative, frightening and/or upsetting, your child may not want to talk about it. While it may seem counterintuitive, consider providing your child a safe space, time and encouragement to discuss the contents of the dream. This may help them to “get it off their chest” and move on more easily.
  • Your child may have the same negative dream again and again. When that happens, consider utilizing image rehearsal therapy. Intentionally set aside a few minutes a day to discuss the dream.
    • Tell your child they are okay, awake and safe.
    • Have them describe the dream.
    • At the end, ask what would have made the dream happier, safer or more positive. How would they end the dream if they could control it?
    • Ask your child to describe what an alternate ending might look like and discuss as many senses as possible. When they imagine and describe it in such detail, they’re creating a second version of this dream for their brain to have as an access point. When they dream that dream again, the brain may take the old version, or it could access the new version instead. Very often, this will be the end of the nightmare.
  • Older children may not want to discuss their dreams. Don’t force it. Consider encouraging private journaling or drawing. The important thing is to be diligent about facing those uncomfortable ideas.

Are you trying to find a doctor? Look here if you live in Illinois. Look here if you live in Wisconsin. 

Related Posts


Subscribe to health enews newsletter

About the Author

Holly Brenza
Holly Brenza

Holly Brenza, health enews contributor, is a public affairs coordinator on the content team at Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care. She is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago. In her free time, Holly enjoys reading, watching the White Sox and Blackhawks, playing with her dog, Bear and running her cats' Instagram account, @strangefurthings.