I've always been an inventive dreamer: Demons, fangs, and post-apocalyptic hybrid bat-goat creatures populated my worst nightmares. My best dream adventures had me swimming in pools of pink macarons and gazing over frozen crystal icescapes. Once I was pregnant, though, all bets were off; arctic visions and bat-goats were kid stuff, replaced by vivid cinematic iterations of hell worthy of a Darren Aronofsky movie.
In one, I was the reluctant caretaker of seven seriously ill puppies, all of us trapped in a shoebox-sized studio together. One was caterpillar-sized and used a mobility device that he often fell out of, leaving me screaming in terror and scrambling to rescue him before the other six puppies trampled him.
In another, I gave birth unceremoniously, a creature plopping out of me that purported to be human. It wasn't. It was a doll, the dream-doctor admitted solemnly, but it was my responsibility to make sure that no one knew it. That was the easy part. She was also a zombie. At parties, bars, and picnics, I was forced to eat her oozing brains on the sly to hide her zombie-doll-truth from curious onlookers. (They tasted like hummus, in case you're wondering.)
I regularly woke up after these nightmares clutching my husband, dry-mouthed and shaking, more than a little jealous that he'd probably spent the night dreaming about something normal like sex or being late to work. Meanwhile, I'd just been dropped into a psychological thriller of my brain's own creation.
It wasn't just that my dreams were more intense. I also remembered them more vividly and remained disturbed by them throughout the day. I'd be at Trader Joe's and eye the samples guy warily, wondering what he'd think of me if he knew I'd dreamed about eating my zombie-doll daughter's brains last night. My sleep, too, was rattled. My nightly hauntings had me so anxious that sometimes I avoided sleep altogether.
Apparently, a pregnant person's body "is producing different hormones that will make her more receptive and responsive to a newborn and newborn sleep cycles—waking up every few hours," says Shanna Donhauser, Seattle-based child and family psychotherapist. Sleep changes for most pregnant women, and often in predictable ways.
These hormonal shifts, as one study in the Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic and Neonatal Nursing suggests, make for more frequent night wakings, insomnia, restless sleep, and more difficulty in both falling and staying asleep, particularly in the third trimester. In fact, one Sleep Medicine study reported frequent nighttime wakings in 100 percent of pregnant women studied. Along with changes in their sleep cycles, pregnant women regularly report that their dreams are more vivid and intense than before they conceived, that they remember more of their content, and that they tend to be more negatively toned than before the pregnancy.
In addition to being more colorful and memorable, pregnancy dreams often share common themes: conflict with the baby's other parent, threats to physical safety, and fears of childbirth. Pregnancy is, by definition, existential: bringing something into existence that wasn't there before. No wonder our psyches are perturbed.
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And while you shouldn't read too much into dream symbols—dreams about death, for example, are common during pregnancy—they can potentially tell you something about what you're afraid of. In nightmares, Donhauser says, "Our psyche is processing intense emotions in our subconscious. Sometimes the dreams are about being chased, or desperately searching for something that is lost, or having to fight off something scary. Typically the dreams are intense, vivid, and lingering."
While most pregnant women report increased dreaming, more waking recollections of their dreams, and sleep disturbances, not everyone experiences nightmares or night terrors during pregnancy. Those most at risk are women who are experiencing anxiety about their pregnancies already—those who have previously experienced pregnancy loss, have histories of trauma, or have high-risk pregnancies.
That sounds about right. I've struggled with depression and anxiety since childhood, and I had more than a little to worry about during my pregnancy. My baby girl had a CPAM—a low-risk but rare lung malformation—and I was set to move ten days after my baby's birth for my husband's new university job. My husband is also a wheelchair user, and I was concerned about how we'd handle the new challenges in our lives (hence, I guess, the unfortunate puppies). Zombie-dolls aside, the sources of my anxieties were very real—and they needed attention.
Understanding the causes of my nightmares isn't enough. I needed to figure out how to manage them, especially since I was trying to get at least a little quality sleep before the baby arrived. Donhauser says I'd only be able to do this if I could effectively learn to manage my real life stress—a tall glass to fill.
Women in the US have a lot to worry about, statistically speaking, when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth. In particular, financial stress for new parents is a common concern in a country where many pregnant women don't have access to adequate healthcare, and 6 percent of women receive no prenatal care at all. And as the only "developed" nation without mandated paid maternity leave, "many women cannot afford to take much time off after their baby is born and choose to take only a few weeks," Donhauser says. Despite this, women still do the bulk of the childcare, leaving a lot on our plates and not many resources with which to deal with it.
Pregnancy nightmares might be absurd—hello, puppies-on-wheels—but they can also signal deeper fears about the future and risk factors for developing postpartum depression, Donhauser says. For new parents, and Americans in general, isolation (the natural inclination to withdraw and not ask for help) is common. In turn, loneliness exacerbates feelings of guilt, shame, and anxiety that can lead to further sleep disturbances.
Ironically, it was the exacerbated restlessness of pregnancy that finally forced me to make sleep a priority. Many new parents consider extreme sleep deprivation to be par for the course, but I knew that to preserve my mental health, I couldn't accept bad sleep as a reality.
So before giving birth, I sought out help from a professional to find a breastfeeding-safe sleep aid. Once my daughter was born, I leaned on my support system—my husband and family members—to provide me with as much assistance as I needed to rest and recuperate. While my nightmares were distressing, they served as effective red flags, helping me decode, and even make peace with, the unconscious fears buried deep within my psyche.
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