New mum nightmares: Causes and what to do about them
If you're having bad dreams after giving birth, know that you're not alone.
For many mums, sleepless nights come from caring for and feeding baby throughout the night. However, there’s another reason for sleepless night that isn’t talked about and doesn’t involve fussy babies: bad dreams after giving birth.
These nightmares usually involve the baby being in a life-threatening situation. They feel so real that some mums fear going to sleep, resulting in extreme emotional and physical exhaustion.
If you do manage to drift off, the ensuing nightmare jerks you awake, and you frantically check that your baby’s still breathing and alive. Nothing’s wrong with her – but the panic stays.
Bad dreams after giving birth aren’t a rare condition, so please know that you are not alone. Most mums do experience them.
A Little-Known Problem Many New Mums Experience
Surprisingly, there’re not much information on this condition, even though it happens to most mums. Previous research conducted in the journal Sleep says that:
- 73% of women who have just given birth said that they experienced nightmares of their baby in danger.
- Many of the women suffering from these postpartum nightmares felt that results of the dream leaked into their daily lives.
- 42% remained anxious even after waking up.
- 60% were worried that something really happened with their baby and thought that they had to inspect their baby .
Dreaming of your baby dying is so common among mums that there’s even an acronym for it: BIB (Baby in Bed) dream.
However, mums may be hesitant to talk about it because doing so might make the experience more “real”. There’s also the social stigma attached to the issue. However, you’ll be relieved to know there is a scientific reason as to why these bad dreams happen.
What causes bad dreams after giving birth?
Tore Nielsen is the director of the Dream & Nightmare Laboratory at the University of Montreal and author of the Sleep study. In his words, these bad dreams after giving birth feel lifelike and harsh due to the REM rebound effect.
REM stands for “rapid eye movement”. REM happens in one stage of sleeping that’s linked to brain activity and dreaming. It generally repeats every 1.5 hours.
When you don’t get enough REM sleep (from looking after your baby, for instance), your body needs more REM sleep the next time you go to bed.
The next time you do go to bed and have more REM sleep, it leads to more realistic and extreme dreams. Couple this with hormonal imbalances and a baby to watch over 24/7, and it’s no wonder that new mums have such terrifying dreams.
Bad dreams after giving birth don’t happen because you’re a bad mother
As surprising as it sounds, experiencing these nightmares is actually a sign that you’re a good mother.
Wendy Davis, the executive director of Postpartum Support International, explains that many mums misunderstand why these dreams occur in the first place, which results in anxiety after waking up.
Initially, many new mums who experience these nightmares “worry that it makes them a bad mother or that it’s a premonition of something that might actually happen,” explains Davis.
She continues to say that these horrible dreams occur “because you’re attached and bonding with your baby.”
The proof is simple. Research conducted to image brain activity showed that the section of the brain responsible for “these intrusive thoughts is the part of the brain that deals with vigilance and protectiveness, not violence,” explains Davis.
In reality, bad dreams after giving birth are nifty tricks by evolution to keep your baby safe
Rest assured that having bad dreams after giving birth is a biological phenomenon which comes from evolution. These dreams work like an alarm to help mums protect their babies at night, not a revelation that there’s something wrong with your child or you.
Having nightmares to wake you up at night makes sense for early humans. What if some animal sneaked up on your defenseless baby? These nightmares would help you keep your babies safe.
Unfortunately, this side effect of evolution only stresses out modern-day parents. However, Davis says that there are support services and resources available for mums to stop these recurring bad dreams after giving birth. Even if it doesn’t work out right away, mums can seek guidance and support as they find ways to cope with the tormenting visions.
*Note that these bad dreams after giving birth may signal more severe issues like postpartum anxiety, depression, or even PTSD arising from a traumatic birth (roughly 9% of women may have PTSD). However, in general, most nightmares happen independently, without extra symptoms.
How to Relieve Anxiety After Waking Up
Dr Davis outlines a methodical strategy to confront these nightmares below:
- First, research and deeply understand why these dreams occur. Remember, it happens to many other mums, and is good sign of healthy bonding with your baby. “If you can normalise it in your mind, you can take away some of the fear that comes with it,” says Davis.
- Secondly, find someone to open up about your bad dreams after giving birth. Talking to a close friend, your partner, or even calling a helpline (if you don’t feel like sharing your experience with them), helps.
- Only once you’ve done the first two steps should you quell the anxiety that came from the dream. Yes, do go and inspect your car seat latch to make sure it’s safe. “But once you have done that, your goal should be to calm down,” says Davis.
Davis also advises new mums to comfort themselves after waking up from a bad dream after giving birth. Think of it as though you were helping your baby calm down. A mantra like ““I’m having these dreams because I am attached and involved” can help neutralise the anxiety.