Postpartum Nightmares—Why New Mothers Have Scary Dreams

Postpartum nightmares are something that can take a new mother by surprise. Here’s what you should know about these terrifying dreams.

By Nicole Gleichmann

Many new mothers experience postpartum anxiety. With an infant to care for, fragmented sleep, and a whole slew of new responsibilities, it’s only normal to feel a bit stressed or overwhelmed. For some, this worry can infiltrate into the subconscious, taking form in disconcerting nightmares. No mom wants to drift off to sleep, only to be confronted by her biggest fears and worries.

These bad dreams can make sleep even more of a challenge. And the stress and bad dreams can feel like a cycle, where the more stress you have, the worse your nightmares…and the worse your nightmares, the more anxiety you feel when awake.

What is the story behind these terrifying dreams? Understanding postpartum nightmares might be just what you need to relieve a small fraction of your worries.

Postpartum Nightmares are Common

Being a new parent is incredibly challenging, and it’s tough to know what to expect and whether or not an experience is normal. But rest assured, these bad dreams are quite common.

In a study published in the journal Sleep, researchers at the University of Montreal sought to learn more about postpartum nightmares. Of 202 recent mothers:

  • 75% reported anxious nightmares involving their baby
  • 73% experienced scary dreams where their infant was in danger
  • 63% noted dream-associated behaviors, such as acting out their dreams

Why is it that many new mothers aren’t warned about the likelihood of these nightmares? It may come down to mothers not wanting to talk about having them.

Having dreams of something happening to your baby is troubling. A woman may feel guilty about them, as if these bad dreams were somehow her fault. And few women want to talk about this type of dream simply because they don’t want to relive the experience. Because new parents don’t often talk about their nightmare experiences, many new mothers are met with scary dreams not knowing to expect them.

While these dreams are normal, for a rare few, they can be a sign of something more dangerous, such as postpartum psychosis. If you experience hallucinations or depression as well as nightmares, be sure to talk with your doctor.

What Causes Postpartum Nightmares?

The research about new-parent nightmares is scant, but scientists have multiple theories that make sense of these scary experiences.

Let’s start out with a theory that revolves around the purpose of dreaming. Dreaming is a central part of learning and memory, and new parents are in a state of constant learning. From learning how to care for a new infant to storing details about a child’s needs, wants, and personality, there is a lot for the brain to work through during the night.

Another thing that new moms must learn? How to keep their baby safe. From childproofing to finding a trustworthy babysitter, every day presents new challenges. Pair this learning with the natural worry and stress that comes from an emotional life experience, and you have the perfect recipe for vivid, and sometimes scary, dreams.

Another hypothesis is that these nightmares are an evolutionary adaptation. Long ago, humans lived in places where their children would be subject to nighttime predators. A slight noise or movement would need to be responded to in order to keep an infant safe. Nightmares could snap a new mother out of sleep, encouraging her to check that the baby is safe and sound.

Sleep deprivation, too, may play a role in the vivid nature of postpartum nightmares. Tore Nielson, the author of the sleep study on the frequency of postpartum nightmares, hypothesizes that dreams following childbirth may be particularly vivid due to the REM rebound effect.

Rapid eye movement sleep, or REM sleep, is the stage of sleep during which the majority of our dreams occur. When we experience fragmented sleep, the intensity of our dreams during REM sleep can increase until sleep recovery occurs. As new parents rarely sleep through the night, they can experience frequent, vivid dreams and nightmares.

You may have noticed similar vivid dreaming if you are a connoisseur of the snooze button. As you interrupt your sleep and reenter it, your dreams feel more realistic. Plus, you are more likely to recall your dreams in this fragmented sleep state.


What You Can Do to Sleep Better and Relieve the Anxiety

Anyone who has experienced a nightmare where their child is in peril will tell you how terrifying it can be. For a new mother, the best thing to do is to relieve this fear. Go and check on your baby, make sure the doors are locked, or double-check that you baby-proofed the stairs well enough—whatever it is that will relax your mind.

From there, head back to bed and work to become calm and go back to sleep. These tips may offer some relief:

  • Remind yourself that these nightmares are normal
  • Think about things you are grateful for
  • Practice meditation or deep breathing

It may help to talk to someone about your nightmares. Telling a friend, spouse, or a therapist can allow you work through your feelings and regain some inner calm. As you settle into your role as a new parent, these disconcerting dreams are likely to fade.


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