Pregnant women often have nightmares about the upcoming birth, dreaming especially about complications. New mothers often have bizarre dreams about misplacing the newborn or forgetting to return him to the crib.
"It's an unusual type of dream," says Tore Nielsen, PhD, a psychologist at the Sleep Research Centre at Sacred Heart Hospital in Montreal and the researcher of the study. "In many ways it is like the Hollywood stereotypical nightmare. The person is acting out ... speaking out. That's not how usual nightmares occur."
His study is published in the Sept. 1 issue of the journal Sleep.
Triggering the bizarre dreams during pregnancy and the newborn period, Nielsen says, is a combination of sleep disruption and "the intense emotions that go along with being a new mother." Fluctuating hormones no doubt contribute, too, he says.
Included in those intense emotions, he says, is the fear of not measuring up as a new parent. "The dreams [of the new moms] had this kind of peril nature," Nielsen says. "The mother leaves the baby with someone and forgets to pick him up. The mother accidentally leaves a baby in a changing room."
In the study, Nielsen and his colleagues evaluated 273 women assigned to three groups: new mothers, pregnant women, or never-pregnant women. The women all completed questionnaires about sleep and personality. Those who were pregnant answered questions about their pregnancy and birth. They were all asked about recent dreams and nightmares.
Between 88% and 91% of women in all groups recalled dreams and nightmares. A very common nightmare is one Nielsen calls "baby in bed." The mother dreams the infant has been lost in the bed and searches through the covers. She often weeps or speaks out loud. When she awakens, she realizes the baby is not in bed but often feels driven to get up and check on the baby.
A woman in the never-pregnant group even reported this dream after going to visit her newborn nephew, Nielsen says.
While pregnant women and new moms recalled dreams and nightmares with equal prevalence, more new moms had dreams that included anxiety or the baby in danger. For instance, 75% of new moms had dreams that involved anxiety, and 73% had dreams involving the infant in danger, but 59% of pregnant women had dreams involving anxiety or their baby in danger.
Pregnant women reported nightmares about complicated labor and delivery. "One woman dreamed she had a contraction, and that the baby's foot came out, and she tried to put it back in because the baby was not yet at term," Nielsen says.
Another woman dreamed she was in a car crash a week before delivery. A woman who had never been pregnant dreamed she was holding a friend's baby and it transformed into a larva. She dreamed she stepped on it and crushed it.
New moms were more likely to report motor activity, such as moving around in the bed, but all groups were equally likely to speak during the dream or nightmare.
Study Implications, Interpretations
Bizarre dreams during pregnancy and the newborn period can be distressing, Nielsen tells WebMD, and understandably so. "They can get pretty macabre," Nielsen says.
"I notice they reported they were quite distressed after waking up from these dreams," he tells WebMD. "A lot of them went to check on the baby after waking up. That may be a good thing,"
Anxiety, the sense of maternal responsibility, fear of the unknown, and sleep disruption may all underlie the dreams and nightmares, he says.
While the study focused on women, "some of our husbands also had these dreams," Nielsen says. That suggests hormonal factors alone can't explain them, he says.
Another Sleep Expert's Opinion
Sleep deprivation is at the root of the bizarre dreams and nightmares, agrees Frisca Yan-Go, MD, professor of neurology and medical director of the sleep program at the University of California Los Angeles David Geffen School of medicine, and director of the sleep laboratory at Santa Monica -- UCLA Medical Center and Orthopaedic Hospital, Santa Monica, Calif.
"Sleep deprivation is a big problem for everybody," she says. The more sleep deprived you are, the more you can expect these kinds of events, she says, in particular the nightmares involving sleep talking or sleep walking, which reflects that the body and mind are out of sync.
Advice for Women
Knowing that these bizarre dreams during pregnancy and the newborn period are common might be reassuring in itself. "If women are really being distressed by these nightmares, they should get some kind of treatment," Nielsen says. One option, he says, is progressive relaxation, in which one learns to relax the muscles, one by one, and completely relax.
Be aware, too, that the nightmares may continue for awhile after childbirth, he says. "We studied the women up to three months postpartum, and no decrease in nightmares was noticed yet," he says. "We are now looking up to six months, to see if they stopped."
Yan-Go concedes that sleep deprivation is an especially tough problem for new moms to overcome, but advises them to sleep when the baby sleeps and to trade off feeding shifts with their partner, pumping their milk if necessary. "Get a high school student to help out," she adds. "Ask everybody to come and help you. Pay your sleep debt."