Like most new moms, I got the “How’s the baby sleeping?” question a lot. It’s the postpartum equivalent of “How are you?”—a casual query lobbed at tired parents by visiting friends and well-meaning strangers. But it tripped me up.
At six weeks old, my daughter was sleeping like a champ. She was regularly getting five-hour stretches of shut-eye at night, a rare feat for an infant her age. So no, my tell-tale glazed, puffy eyes weren’t the result of my baby’s sleepless nights—they were caused by my own nightmares, vivid and often violent visions of my baby that made me dread going to bed at night and clouded my mornings with emotional hangovers.
In one dream, my daughter was lying on her play mat when I realized she was choking. I rushed over, and when I looked into her mouth, I saw a crumpled wire hanger lodged in her throat. I screamed and watched helplessly as her eyes widened and her lips turned blue.
In another nightmare I was driving on a highway with my cooing baby buckled into her car seat when all of a sudden the car door swung open and the carseat fell out. I slammed on my breaks but it was too late—I watched through the rear-view mirror as the car seat bounced across the highway, tossing her tiny body into lanes of speeding traffic.
There were more terrible dreams, each one pulled from some dark depths of my subconscious I didn’t even know existed—my baby being tossed around in ocean waves, pulled under the currents of a rushing river, trapped underneath a bookshelf after an earthquake, floating in our bathtub. I could hear every cry, and I felt the horror of what I was seeing as if it was actually happening.
Each time I’d wake up panicked and rush to check on my baby, to touch her and feel her tiny swaddled chest moving up and down. I’d cry, even days later, when I relayed these dreams to my husband. As the nightmares became more frequent, I pushed myself to stay up later, binge-watching The Americans in order to avoid the horrors that awaited me in bed.
Desperate for relief, I turned to the resource every new mom loves and hates: Google. A search for “new baby, nightmares” just turned up message boards of mothers worrying their newborns were having nightmares. (Spoiler alert: It’s just gas.) Was I the only one besieged by bad dreams?
One mom friend told me she had a recurring dream that her baby was lost in the bed, suffocating under the covers. Turns out, this is a nightmare so common that one researcher created an acronym for it: BIB (Baby in Bed) dream.
The lack of information I found on postpartum nightmares is surprising, considering how common they are: According to a study in the journal Sleep, 73 percent of postpartum women reported having dreams of their infant in peril. For many, the effects of these bad dreams lingered after they woke up—42 percent of women felt postawakening anxiety after a nightmare and 60 percent felt the need to get up and check on their infant.
Postpartum dreaming might be especially intense because of something called the REM rebound effect, says Tore Nielsen, Ph.D., director of the Dream & Nightmare Laboratory at the University of Montreal and author of the Sleep study. REM, which stands for “rapid eye movement,” is a sleep phase that’s tied with brain activity and dreaming, and it typically occurs every 90 minutes. When you get only short bouts of it (say, because of a crying baby), your need for this type of sleep builds up so that during your next stretch of sleep, you may actually have more REM sleep and, therefore, more intense and vivid dreams. Combine that with out-of-whack hormones and a completely helpless new being to worry about, and it’s easy to see why a sleep-deprived new parent is a prime candidate for wild, lucid dreams.
In brain-imaging studies, the part of the brain that lights up when new parents are having these intrusive thoughts is the part of the brain that deals with vigilance and protectiveness, not violence.
One mom friend told me she had a recurring dream that her baby was lost in the bed, suffocating under the covers. She’d wake up to find herself physically digging through the sheets to find her son. Though her child is 12 now, she still shuddered thinking about it. Turns out, this is a nightmare so common that Nielsen gave it an acronym in his study: BIB (Baby in Bed) dream.
My friend shared this story after I told her about the nightmares that haunted me. In fact, all of my wonderfully oversharing friends (the same ones who happily swapped birth stories involving gory details of perineal tearing and postbirth constipation) neglected to mention anything about this extremely common and destabilizing symptom. It may be that they just didn’t want to think about it—after all, the dreams are so disturbing you’d rather forget about them immediately than rehash them over a group text. But it could also be that there’s a stigma surrounding new mom nightmares—it’s not easy to share the disturbing visions you have about your baby.
“New moms who have really awful nightmares about their baby may worry that it makes them a bad mother or that it’s a premonition of something that might actually happen,” says Wendy Davis, Ph.D., the executive director of Postpartum Support International. But, says Davis, if we really understood what was going on with these nightmares, we wouldn’t feel so anxious about them. “What new parents don’t realize is how many of these difficult, scary images happen because you’re attached and bonding with your baby,” says Davis. “In brain imaging studies, the part of the brain that lights up when new parents are having these intrusive thoughts is the part of the brain that deals with vigilance and protectiveness, not violence.”
When you wake up after a nightmare, soothe yourself almost like you’d soothe your baby, [using] a mantra such as “I’m having these dreams because I am attached and involved” or “Thank you, brain, for keeping my baby safe. We’ll talk about this in the morning.”
My nightmares, according to Davis, were likely an evolutionary adaptation. They are actually part of a cavewoman-era system designed to help me keep my baby safe, not a sign that anything was wrong with her—or me. During prehistoric times, this would lead to safer babies, but today it can lead to stressed-out parents. Nightmares can sometimes be a symptom of a bigger issue, including postpartum anxiety, depression, or even PTSD from a traumatic birth event (which happens to about 9 percent of women). But in most cases, including my own, they occur on their own, without any other symptoms. The good news, according to Davis, is that it’s possible to break the nightmare cycle—or at least get the right kind of support while you deal with it.
The first step is to take the research on these bad dreams to heart. Know that they’re incredibly common and even a sign of healthy bonding with your baby. “If you can normalize it in your mind, you can take away some of the fear that comes with it,” says Davis. The second step is to talk to someone about your nightmares. If you’re not comfortable discussing them with a friend or partner, call a helpline (like the one offered by Postpartum Support International: 800-944-4773).
After—and only after!—you’ve told someone about your dreams, do anything you feel you need to do that related to the dream. “If you need to double-check your car seat latch or Google ‘chance of earthquakes in Minneapolis,’ then do it,” says Davis. “But once you have done that, your goal should be to calm down.” When you wake up after a nightmare, soothe yourself almost like you’d soothe your baby—Davis recommends a mantra such as “I’m having these dreams because I am attached and involved” or “Thank you, brain, for keeping my baby safe. We’ll talk about this in the morning.”
In my case, the nightmares started tapering off when my daughter was about eight weeks old and disappeared entirely a few weeks later. My first non-baby- related dream—a jumbled narrative about a baseball game and sharing cotton candy with Jude Law and my middle school math teacher—was a huge relief. I was so happy to wake up without clenching my jaw and holding back tears. The next morning, as I nursed my baby and inhaled her powdery sweet scent, I could remember just a few nonsensical wisps of the dream and, really, that was fine by me.
Merritt Watts lives in San Francisco and has written for The Wall Street Journal and Self.
If you’re dealing with postpartum stress, sadness, or want to talk about the adjustment to parenthood, please call Postpartum Support International at 800-944-4773, text them at 503-894-9453, or visit postpartum.net.