“It’s just a dream,” goes the sleepy refrain of countless parents trying to console their kids in the dead of the night.
Nightmares are common in children, and for the most part, they’re harmless.
But new research published last week in the journal Sleep shows that children who have persistent nightmares at an older age could be at higher risk of having psychotic experiences.
Nightmares are common in children—70 percent of those age two to nine—and only 4.5 percent have psychotic experiences.
The study is the most recent finding from longitudinal research in England, which began 18 years ago when mothers were 8 months pregnant.
In the group of parents who reported “persistent” nightmares between ages two and nine, the children had up to one and a half times increased risk of developing psychotic experiences, compared to those who did not report persistent nightmares.
The group of children who self-reported frequent nightmares at age 12 were three and a half times more likely to report psychotic experiences than those who did not have frequent nightmares. Twelve-year-olds who reported experiencing night terrors had a doubled risk of such problems.
Psychotic experiences are an early indicator of potential psychosis—for instance, developing schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, or bipolar disorder. Most estimates put the adult prevalence of psychotic experiences between five and seven percent. Three percent overall develop psychoses, and one percent of the population has schizophrenia.
“Of course, we don’t want to give parents a nightmare,” says Professor Dieter Wolke of the University of Warwick, senior author of the study. He is quick to point out that nightmares are common in children—70 percent of those age two to nine—and only 4.5 percent have psychotic experiences.*
“So most children who have nightmares don’t develop psychotic experiences,” he says. However, he acknowledges that parents don’t like their kids to have nightmares in general, and there are several steps they can take to prevent them, some more obvious than others:
- Don’t show your kid horror movies.
- Don’t let your child play stimulating games (shooting games in particular) before bed.
- Children shouldn’t have a computer or TV in the bedroom, to keep them from using it in the evening.
- If nightmares are frequent, feel free to ask your child about the content. There may be some stressor or anxiety that they feel in their lives that is showing up in nightmares.
- Kids should get enough sleep, otherwise night terrors occur more frequently.
- For kids who experience night terrors, parents can keep a diary to determine when (how many minutes after falling asleep) they occur. Then, they can safely wake the children 10 minutes before the typical onset period to help curb them.
Follow these rules and hopefully your child will sleep through the night, nightmare-free. Not only is it good for the kids, it'll give sleep-deprived parents a bit of rest, too.
*UPDATE — March 07, 2014: An earlier version of this post misstated the university Dieter Wolke is affiliated with. He is a professor at the University of Warwick, not Cardiff University.