In one dream, I was walking across a bridge in the middle of the night. It was windy and wet, and before I knew it, the bridge was starting to shake and I knew I had to run before it collapsed. It was at that point I realized I didn’t have my baby with me. I’d left him at home sleeping, alone. How could I do that? How could I forget him?
As I ran, I thought about what would happen if I died before I made it home. Or if he died, because no one was watching him. I woke up in a sweat, heart racing, my newborn sleeping soundly next to me.
The nightmares were always a little different, but they always involved me walking, running, traveling, looking for something, trying to escape something – and realizing I’d forgotten my baby. Usually my life was in peril, and I’d obsess about what would happen to my baby if he had no mother.
In other dreams – the truly terrifying ones – my baby’s life was in danger, and there was nothing I could do to save him. I’d wake myself up just before he died, and then frantically place my hand on his chest to make sure he was still breathing.
The nightmares diminished after a few months, but they were a huge part of my experience as a postpartum mom who was dealing with anxiety. It was only when my son was a toddler, and my anxiety reached a peak, that I realized how out of control my anxiety had been since my son was born.
I never really shared these nightmares with that many people. They were hard to process, and kind of blurred together with everything that was difficult about my experience after the birth of my first son. Plus, they were really frightening and not something I really wanted to re-live.
But I recently came across an article in Glamour that cited a bit of research I had never heard of before. According to a study published in the journal Sleep in 2007, postpartum nightmares are extremely common, affecting the majority of new moms – and many moms report these nightmares to be extremely disturbing and disorienting.
The researchers were studying the incidence of nightmares in both pregnant and postpartum moms. Interestingly, 88%-91% of pregnant and postpartum moms reported having dreams and nightmares that were vivid enough to remember.
But it was the postpartum group that reported dreams that were distressing. 75% of postpartum moms said that their dreams made them feel anxious. And 73% had dreams where their infant’s life was in danger.
This is so dang relatable, huh? I just never knew it was so prevalent. I truly thought the reason I had so many postpartum nightmares was because of the fact that I have anxiety to begin with – it’s eye-opening to me that the majority of moms have unsettling dreams.
According to the research, it’s not just nightmares – postpartum moms report similar behaviors and experiences that follow these nightmares: 41% reported anxiety upon waking, 51% reported confusion, and 60% of moms reported that they felt a need to check on their infant when they woke up.
Oh my goodness, it sounds like they were describing my experience to a T. I seriously thought I was the only one who had dreams that would prompt me to frantically and obsessively check on my baby. (Confession: I still do this sometimes, like when my kids are sick. I guess it truly never ends.)
So why are postpartum nightmares such a universal experience? According to the study, it has to do with several factors, most notably the fact that having a baby who wakes you several times a night can really mess with your sleep cycles.
It’s a phenomenon called “REM rebound effect,” Tore Nielsen, lead author of the Sleep study, explains to Glamour. What happens is that when your sleep cycles are disrupted by something like a crying or fussing baby, you end up having more REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep and thus more vivid dreams and nightmares.
But it’s not just the “REM rebound effect,” says Nielsen. It’s the fact that on top of that, your hormones are all over the place, you are going through a major life transition, and you have a whole lot to suddenly worry about and be responsible for. I suppose it’s like the perfect storm for something like totally terrifying and out of control dreams, huh?
A study like this is helpful because it can reassure moms that they are not alone, and that what they are experiencing is in the realm of common and normal. I know I could have used that assurance when I was experiencing these nightmares.
However, it’s also important to note that although postpartum nightmares are common, that doesn’t mean they are always normal. Disturbing nightmares are also symptoms of postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, and even postpartum psychosis.
If your nightmares are combined with symptoms like depression, anxiety, obsessive thoughts, and if you are finding it difficult to function and rebound from your nightmares, definitely talk to your doctor or a therapist for help. You deserve to feel better and there is no shame in getting help for a postpartum mood disorder.
I am happy to report that, for me, the nightmares diminished after the first few weeks of my baby’s life, and I hardly had any nightmares when my second son was born. Looking back – and especially knowing now how common they are – I think they were a kind of rite of passage for me.
As terrifying as they were, they taught me that yes, mother’s instincts really are that powerful, and mine were in very good shape indeed. They were my initiation into the world of constant worrying about the safety and whereabouts of my children, which is basically what motherhood is all about … and which never really ends.