Explaining the difference between dreams and reality to your toddler

How we experience dreams differs from person to person. Some sleepers find themselves in vivid realms that activate all of their senses, and others never really remember anything from their travels in slumberland. Trying to explain something as personal and strange as a dream to a toddler can turn into a little bit of a nightmare.

The stuff that dreams are made of

According to the National Sleep Foundation dreams are “subconscious imaginings that contain sounds, images, and other sensations.” They occur during the deepest part of sleep known as REM, or Rapid Eye Movement sleep.

It’s a fine definition for adults, but isn’t likely to mean much to Baby.

When you’re talking about dreams, it can be useful to think about why they happen. Scientists don’t yet know their exact purpose, but the National Sleep Foundation says there are four leading theories:

  • Dreams are therapeutic: Dreams often feature strong emotional feelings. It could be that we dream to think through these difficult emotions from different perspectives.
  • Threat response: Have you heard of the “fight or flight” reflex? Scientists have found that it occurs more often during deep sleep when dreams are occurring. Perhaps dreams are like your own virtual reality simulation where you can practice tackling threatening situations.
  • Practice makes perfect: It could be that dreams let you practice more than just feelings, but ideas too! Many artists, athletes, and deep thinkers credit dreams for bursts of creativity, or solutions to problems that needed extra concentration.
  • Clean the cobwebs: All of these theories have to do with processing information, and maybe that’s the whole point to dreams. Some scientists think REM sleep is a time for our brains to think through information we’ve gained, keeping the important new connections while forgetting the less important stuff.

Mixed realities

For toddlers, dreams can feel incredibly real. It’s hard for them to distinguish between what’s imagined and things that actually happened.

Even if Baby can understand that the content of a dream was imaginary, the emotions they feel during a dream are all very real. Those fight or flight reflexes can lead to dreams full of powerful, negative feelings.

What can be even harder for parents is when they’re the subjects of those negative feelings. Baby‘s dreams will include characters they are familiar with, and there’s no one they know better than you. Just because you were a bad character in Baby‘s dream doesn’t mean that they are mad at you, or scared of you.

How to explain

There’s a lot of abstract concepts involved in understanding dreams – they are dreams after all. Here’s a four-step plan for helping Baby start to understand the difference between their dreams and their reality.

  • Step 1, how imagination gets done: One of the best things about Baby is their wonderful imagination. It’s powerful, and when it comes to dreams, imagination can be hard to understand and feel impossible to control. You can help by leading Baby in an imagination exercise. Ask them to close their eyes and imagine their feet are huge, or that you’ve disappeared. Then have them open their eyes and see that what they imagined didn’t come true. These simple demonstrations can help Baby start to experience the difference between what’s real and what’s just in their mind.
  • Step 2, what the word “dream” can do: It might take a while for Baby to understand when they have had a dream. By introducing the term many times you can help them make the connection. Putting it in context can also help, so try phrases like “dreams that happen at night,” “those dreams you get when you’re sleeping,” and “happy and scary dreams you remember when you wake up in bed.” This can help Baby associate those weird, bedtime experiences with the idea of dreaming and not daytime reality.
  • Step 3, practice empathy: In any conversation about dreams, especially negative ones, it’s important not to minimize how Baby feels. Saying something like “it’s just a silly dream” or “that didn’t really happen” just makes it harder for Baby to receive your comfort. This is especially difficult when you’re the star of a negative dream. Try to ask questions like “why was it scary?” or “when I did that in your dream, how did it make you feel?” so you can turn those imaginings into a learning moment about emotions.
  • Step 4, use a metaphor: When you describe what a dream is, you can relate it to something Baby understands. For instance, you could describe dreams as a television show your brain makes that turns off when you wake up. If Baby likes books, maybe talk about dreams like a story your brain tells when you’re sleeping. 

  • Eileen Kennedy-Moore. “How to Help Kids with Nightmares.” PBS Parents. PBS, January 13 2016. Retrieved June 1 2017. http://www.pbs.org/parents/expert-tips-advice/2016/01/help-kids-nightmares/.
  • D’Arcy Lyness. “Nightmares.” KidsHealth. The Nemours Foundation, July 2013. Retrieved June 1 2017. http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/nightmare.html#.
  • Cari Romm. “Little Kids Use Their Dreams to Figure Out Real Life.” New York Magazine. New York Media, LLC, October 10 2016. Retrieved June 1 2017. http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2016/10/what-do-babies-and-little-kids-dream-about-animals-mostly.html.
  • “Four theories on why we dream.” Sleep.org. National Sleep Foundation. Retrieved June 1 2017. https://sleep.org/articles/dream/.

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