In the months after my second child was born, I had a recurring dream so vivid I used to gasp myself awake.
In it, I’d be going about my day — running errands with my elder kiddo, getting some work done — then I’d suddenly remember I had another child, whom I’d left alone in his crib for hours. (I don’t recall having dreams that vivid or specific after my first child was born — a testament, perhaps, to how little sleep I was actually getting.)
Experts who study sleep — as well as the millions of moms who’ve slogged their way through the postpartum period — understand that new parenthood radically transforms women’s sleep.
Surveys suggest that half of parents with new babies at home get just three hours of uninterrupted sleep a night. Postpartum women undergo hormonal changes that alter their circadian rhythms. Even if the baby is sleeping relatively well, new moms have issues like night sweats and breast engorgement to deal with. (Alas, while the postpartum period is unique in its intensity and how disjointed newborn sleep is, studies show moms and dads don’t sleep well for the first six years of their children’s lives.)
But much less is known about what happens to women’s dreams after childbirth — although experts who study how new motherhood rewires the brain say it is not at all surprising that many postpartum women experience profound shifts in how they dream.
“The hormones and neurotransmitters of pregnancy, birth and lactation … get up in there in our brains and change the expression of certain genes, which causes this sort of rewiring that mostly has to do with the way women are perceiving the world and are motivated to interact with it,” said Abigail Tucker, author of the forthcoming book “MOM GENES: Inside the New Science of Our Ancient Maternal Instinct,” which explores the biology of motherhood.
Dreaming, in general, is still something of a scientific mystery. “Debate continues among sleep experts about why we dream,” says the Sleep Foundation. Many believe dreams help us to process emotions and that they can help with “mental housekeeping,” which is basically the brain “straightening up” and clearing away unnecessary information, the group says.
Both of which, of course, are likely happening a lot in the brains of new moms who are grappling with massive, life-altering emotional and logistical shifts. And those kinds of brain changes could be adaptive.
“There’s a heightened environmental awareness, where women are starting to read the world in a closer way — especially their baby, but also other concurrent elements of the environment. The fact that dreams are so image-driven could be one of many reason why they are so vivid in this population,” said Tucker. “Literally, your senses have been dialed up. You smell differently, you hear differently.”
“These hormones that are helping us become mothers in a physical sense change our minds,” she added.
Tending to a new baby all night long means new moms are less likely to complete what the Sleep Foundation calls a “balanced cycle through various sleep stages” — including Rapid Eye Movement, or REM sleep, which is when dreams tend to be the most prolific and intense. This means that women aren’t getting really high-quality, restorative sleep, even if they are able to piece together enough hours throughout the night. It also means their dreams are being affected in ways that aren’t fully understood.
“These hormones that are helping us become mothers in a physical sense change our minds.”
– Abigail Tucker, author “MOM GENES: Inside the New Science of Our Ancient Maternal Instinct”
Indeed, few studies have ever looked specifically at dreams and new motherhood, though a small 2007 research paper analyzing the dreams of women during pregnancy and after their babies were born found an uptick in dreams containing anxiety in the postpartum period. Nearly three-quarters of the moms in that study said they’d had a dream (or dreams) in which their baby was in peril — and many felt the need to get up and make sure their baby was actually OK.
That last point is important, the researchers argued. Because if women are at least prepared for the likelihood that they will have these types of dreams, they might save themselves a breathless trip to the crib — which cuts into the precious little sleep they’re able to get.
“New mothers may benefit from education on the nature and prevalence of postpartum dreams and sleep behaviors if it alleviates unnecessary worries about their infant’s safety and unfounded concerns about their own mental health,” they wrote. “It may also prevent mothers from unnecessarily rising at night to check on their infants, thereby decreasing the amount of sleep fragmentation and deprivation that they undergo.”
Because what matters most of all during the postpartum period — and what experts are increasingly recognizing as a real crisis, rather than simply a rite of passage — is that women get more sleep, and that they are given space to discuss what they’re going through. One small study found that postpartum women who were able to just talk about what was happening to them sleep-wise felt a bit better overall.
“The fact that new moms lose something like, on average, 700 hours of sleep per year … that will really do a number on you,” said Tucker. “Your natural sleep cycles, and your natural dream cycles, are basically trashed.”