Why Pregnant Women Have Bizarre Bad Dreams

New research on the surprising frequency of disturbing dreams during pregnancy.

Posted Oct 13, 2016

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Pregnancy is a time of change for a woman, both physically and psychologically. These changes are likely to be reflected in patterns of sleeping and dreaming. For instance, hormonal changes can disturb sleep, diminishing sleep quality and causing more interrupted sleep. In turn, these sleep changes are associated with increased recall of dreams, and with dreams that seem to be more emotionally charged and frightening than during other periods of life. Of course, pregnancy is an emotionally intense experience, and so concerns about motherhood and childbearing are understandably frequent themes in the dreams of pregnant women.

In general, descriptive studies show that it is very common for pregnant women to dream about pregnancy, childbirth, and their unborn baby. According to one study, at least a third of pregnancy dreams refer to one of these themes, and their frequency increases gradually throughout gestational stage (Blake and Reimann, 1993; Jones, 1978). Many of these dreams translate the typical worries of pregnancy, such as potential threats to the baby, the physical integrity of the woman herself, or concerns about parenting skills (Nielsen and Paquette, 2007). One study found that 80 percent of new mothers report that their dreams were particularly vivid, bizarre, and detailed during pregnancy. Dreams might entail terrifying childbearing images or disturbing threats to the baby’s health. Even though this is a perfectly normal occurrence, disturbing and sometimes morbid dreams can be unnerving.

Two recent studies examined the frequency of dream and bad-dream recall, as well as dream content, in pregnant women. The sample included 57 pregnant (age 28.70 ± 4.06 years) and 59 non-pregnant women (age 26.83 ± 4.21 years). All of the women completed a 14-day dream diary, which the researchers used to calculate the number of dreams, bad dreams, and nightmares the women recalled during this period. Later, the dream content was scored by three independent judges to assess what types of characters and themes appeared most often in the dreams.

The results of the first study showed that pregnant women recalled more bad dreams than non-pregnant women, and that they also tended to recall more nightmares than non-pregnant women.

For the dream-content analyses, pregnant participants were divided into two subgroups according to the number of months of gestation. The first was in the seventh month of pregnancy (weeks 26-29 inclusive; N = 37) and the second was in the eighth and ninth months of pregnancy (≥30 weeks; N = 22).

Independent judges scored the dream content for the types of representations that appeared in the dreams. Initially, they found that pregnant women dreamt more often of representations of women as mothers and representations of babies or children, regardless of gestational time. Interestingly, these representations were clearest in the women who were in the seventh month of pregnancy, but became less clear in the eighth and ninth months of pregnancy. It’s possible that the decline in these representations in the eighth and ninth months is due to a reduction in fetal movement during sleep. (The number of spontaneous fetal movements and nocturnal arousals prompted by fetal movements is highest during the seventh month, but then decreases until delivery.) Another possibility is that during the last months of pregnancy, dreams shift more toward childbearing themes, as this becomes the more principal concern, whereas earlier in pregnancy a woman may be more focused on the developing fetus.

The study then explored the typical dream themes of pregnant and non-pregnant women. Birthing themes were more common in dreams of pregnant women, especially in the eighth and ninth months of pregnancy. Dreams about problems occurring during childbirth, threats to the fetus, and general issues related to the human body were also more common during pregnancy, regardless of gestational point. The judges also noted more negative feelings in dreams of childbirth, especially in the eighth and ninth months of pregnancy.

In all, pregnant women reported 2.5 times more bad dreams than non-pregnant women; these dreams often involved themes of childbirth. Increased bad dreams may be partly due to changes in sleep structure. For instance, pregnant women report more night awakenings than non-pregnant women. These awakenings may allow the women to remember their dream experiences more.

What’s more, after childbirth, new mothers may continue to experience unusual bad dreams and nightmares for a certain time. One very common nightmare for new mothers is called the "baby in bed” dream. The mother dreams that the infant is lost somewhere in the bed and frantically searches through the covers, often speaking or crying out loud during the nightmare or in a confused state after awakening. Even when the mother realizes the baby is not in bed and is not in danger, the fear often compels her to get up and check on the baby.

The study revealed that these types of disturbing dreams are a normal occurrence that reflect the emotional concerns of that come with being a new mother.

References

Lara-Carrasco, J., Simard, V., Saint-Onge, K., Lamoureux-Tremblay, V., & Nielsen, T. (2014). Disturbed dreaming during the third trimester of pregnancy. Sleep Medicine, 15(6), 694-700.

Lara-Carrasco, J., Simard, V., Saint-Onge, K., Lamoureux-Tremblay, V., and Nielsen, T. (2013). Maternal representations in the dreams of pregnant women: a prospective comparative study. Frontiers in Psychology, 4.