Having a baby is one of the Really Big events in life, and it is no surprise that both pregnancy and birth have a major influence on the structure and content of a mother’s dreams.
It is also not surprising that many of the dreams have a strong negative component to do with maternal responsibility, or depicting the new infant in dreamed situations of danger. These dreams can cause anxiety that can spill over into wakefulness. A new study from Montreal published in the journal Sleep has added something new: these kinds of dreams may be accompanied by complex sleep behaviors such as motor activity, speaking and expressing emotions.
The study from the Sleep Research Centre at the Hôpital du Sacré-Coeur de Montréal in Montréal, Québec, Canada, focused on 273 women, who were divided into three groups: postpartum, pregnant, and women who had not given birth. The subjects completed questionnaires about pregnancy and birth factors, personality and sleep. They were also interviewed and asked about the prevalence of recent infant dreams and nightmares, associated behaviors, anxiety, depression and other psychopathologic factors.
- The percentage of women in all groups who recalled dreams ranged from 88-91%
- Postpartum and pregnant women recalled infant dreams and nightmares with equal prevalence, but more postpartum women reported they contained anxiety (75%) and the infant in danger (73%) than did pregnant women (59%)
- Motor activity was present in twice as many postpartum (57%) as pregnant (24%) or non-pregnant (25%) women
- Expressing emotion was more prevalent among women without children (56%) than postpartum women (27%), but was not different from pregnant women (37%)
- Speaking while asleep was equal among the three groups (12-19%)
- Behaviors were associated with nightmares, dream anxiety and, among postpartum women, post-awakening anxiety (41%), confusion (51%), and a need to check on the infant (60%)
Most pregnant women experience daytime fatigue primarily because the quality of their sleep tends to be worse. Physical discomfort and awakenings are common, particularly during the third trimester.
Snoring often increases during pregnancy and obstructive sleep apnea may develop as the pregnancy progresses.
Two other sleep disorders that are more common during pregnancy are restless legs syndrome (RLS) and sleep related leg cramps. RLS affects nearly 25% of pregnant women and may be related to low iron stores. Leg cramps occur in about 40% of pregnant women, although they usually clear up after delivery. They tend to go away after delivery.
It is easy to understand these dreams from an evolutionary perspective. Though there is also a small literature on mothers who get intuitive flashes about their distressed infants. I have followed this work for many years. When I was an infant I chocked on a banana, and my mother who was some way off “saw” it happening in her mind’s eye and rushed in to find a very small RP who had already turned blue. She swore to her dying day that the tale was true.
And I still cannot eat bananas.