Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is a distinct brain state characterized by activated electroencephalogram and complete skeletal muscle paralysis, and is associated with vivid dreams. Transection studies by Jouvet first demonstrated that the brainstem is both necessary and sufficient for REM sleep generation, and the neural circuits in the pons have since been studied extensively. The medulla also contains neurons that are active during REM sleep, but whether they play a causal role in REM sleep generation remains unclear. Here we show that a GABAergic (γ-aminobutyric-acid-releasing) pathway originating from the ventral medulla powerfully promotes REM sleep in mice. Optogenetic activation of ventral medulla GABAergic neurons rapidly and reliably initiated REM sleep episodes and prolonged their durations, whereas inactivating these neurons had the opposite effects. Optrode recordings from channelrhodopsin-2-tagged ventral medulla GABAergic neurons showed that they were most active during REM sleep (REMmax), and during wakefulness they were preferentially active during eating and grooming. Furthermore, dual retrograde tracing showed that the rostral projections to the pons and midbrain and caudal projections to the spinal cord originate from separate ventral medulla neuron populations. Activating the rostral GABAergic projections was sufficient for both the induction and maintenance of REM sleep, which are probably mediated in part by inhibition of REM-suppressing GABAergic neurons in the ventrolateral periaqueductal grey. These results identify a key component of the pontomedullary network controlling REM sleep. The capability to induce REM sleep on command may offer a powerful tool for investigating its functions.