What do babies dream?


Anna’s eyes twitch and her feet pedal as she dreams. What are her dreams like? What does a three-week-old infant dream of? How are her dreams like mine? Do I have anything to compare them with? I know my own dreams: on the night after the day she was born, as I slept in the hospital, whenever the nurses would disturb our sleep I would awaken with the residue of my dream, inevitably the face of my new daughter that I had seen for the very first time. That face was being frantically sorted into my consciousness, my brain trying to assemble all of the connections, to figure out how this new face would be intimately tied up with most everything in my life. Since then, my dreams have gradually come back to a more stable form, but still sometimes I dream of changing her or listening to her cry. Less often now do I awake staring at that face.


But what are a baby’s dreams like? How does she see the world? How Is she putting her world in order? I imagine that she puts a huge importance on what I might consider slight things: likely the difference between fore-milk and hind-milk is all out of proportion. Mama’s milk after a dinner of garlic and spice may be an entirely different thing from mama’s milk in the morning or after a day of light eating and only water drinking. But a baby has no words, so how can she see the world? How does she separate out the world into categories: these things are like each other (how?) and unlike other things in a different category. What are the categories? What does she see? Is sight her most importance sense? She seems to know her mother on taste and scent, so the Lansinoh that masks her mama’s taste delays her latching. Does she even understand what makes up the category “mama”? Is mama’s face an essential part of “mama”? (The baby books note that her range of vision seems tuned to the distance from mom’s face to suckling infant, and of course there’s plenty of evidence that humans are hard-wired to understand faces.) But is the Boppy pillow, always present during feeding, a part of Mom more than Mom’s feet? Is feeding from Mom similar enough to deserve a common category, or is it like the infamous 12 Eskimo words for snow? Maybe the initial feeding, when hunger gnaws at her gut, is different from the final stage, when a contented Anna laps up the final drops and relaxes with the pacifying nipple and contentment of warm skin to warm skin.


But what is even a baby’s own? Does she understand that the fists, which she is periodically able to trap against some external object and get her mouth around to root on, belong to her? Her feet may only exist as ephemeral possibilities, of little present consequence. In her dreams, does Anna have feet? Is she just a digestive tract? (Is she aware of her own excretory processes? She still seems to be in a world where shits just overcome her, as do farts and belches, with little relationship to prior events.) When she belches, does she taste milk? Does milk in her mouth, without her mother’s scent and calming presence, seem like milk?


And what of the other people around her? She sees her father’s face every day, so surely this face occupies some place of importance (not quite mom’s but up there). She probably has no idea how he fits in. Who’s this guy? What does he do? He doesn’t feed me, so why does he count? A little person who spent 9 months in liquid doesn’t presently seem to mind a wet diaper, so his post as “diaper-changer” can’t be enough. Then there are the other faces, the grandparents and other family members. Is she dreaming of their faces, rehearsing her recall of important facial characteristics? Is she just dreaming of milk, in all its varieties and flavours? What do little babies dream of?