Before I even knew I was pregnant, I began having vivid, full color dreams. When my pregnancy was confirmed, I realized that intense dreams were one of my very first symptoms. I immediately became interested in finding out why our dreams take such a dramatic shift while we’re expecting. What causes pregnancy to cloud our sleep with Oscar-worthy cinematic masterpieces?
To make sense of the chaos, I sought help from Nielson Tore, PhD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal and director of the Dream and Nightmare Laboratory at Sacre-Coeur Hospital in Montreal. With the help of Tore and doctoral student Jessica Lara-Carrasco, who specializes in pregnant women’s dreams, I was able to uncover what was happening in my nighttime world.
Night visions 101
Dreams are a series of images, ideas, sensations and emotions that occur during different sleep cycles. They originate in the brain stem and are controlled by two neurotransmitters that work as a switch to control when our dreams start and stop. Though scientists believe we all dream during the different stages of sleep, the dreams we most frequently recall occur during the REM cycle. Studies show that while pregnant, a surge in progesterone and estrogen, as well as other hormones, can impact the length of REM cycles, causing a change in the frequency of dreams. Our persistent bladders and other unwanted symptoms of discomfort or worry might also play a role in our dream recollection. Each time we wake during our dreaming period makes it easier to remember the details of the dream.
Why do we dream? “This is still unknown,” says Tore. “Two popular hypotheses are (1) to help consolidate short-term memories into long-term memories and (2) to help regulate emotions over time.” Tore notes that both may be true, meaning dreams capture the emotions you wish to recall later.
Black and white
Why do pregnant women seem to dream so memorably during their nine months of gestation? According to Tore, the jury is still out. “It’s not clear that all women do dream more vividly during pregnancy. One of the goals of our ongoing research is to determine just how common it is,” says Tore. “Some women clearly respond to pregnancy with vivid dreams, but this begs the question ‘How do these women respond when faced with other challenging life events?’ It may be that vivid dreaming happens in a variety of (nonpregnancy related) challenging or life-transforming situations.”
On the other hand, there may indeed be something special about pregnancy dreams. Tore notes, “They may play an important role in helping women deal with the intense emotions of joy, excitement, fear, panic and responsibility that arise during pregnancy.”
Unsurprisingly, one of the most universal scenarios that pregnant women dream about is their newborn. These dreams generally focus on fetuses, growth and birth, but are not necessarily always warm and fuzzy. Tore says it is not uncommon for a pregnant woman to dream about giving birth to a baby who can already walk and speak. These types of dreams may reflect a woman’s desire to do a good job of nurturing her new child, but they may also reflect her doubts about being able to fulfill her role as a mother, explains Tore. “Another common theme concerns the mother’s upcoming parental respons-ibilities and her fear of not being an adequate parent,” he notes. “The dreams of pregnant women are often more negative [including nightmares] than those of nonpregnant women.”
If you’re like me and currently experiencing confusing dreams, there may be relief in deciphering the meaning of your own visions. I asked Lara-Carrasco to help decode one of my most perplexing dreams. During my first trimester, I dreamed I was in my nightgown in a forest surrounded by colorful green mountains and I was releasing three white owls into the trees. I told her it was so bizarre yet brilliantly clear that I couldn’t seem to shake it. “Many of [my] pregnant subjects dream of forests, bodies of water, mountain scenery and small animals,” says Lara-Carrasco. “The meaning of such symbols may stem from experiences common to many pregnant women—like grieving the loss of a former lifestyle—or they may have a deeper, more symbolic meaning such as fertility, transformation, spiritual growth.” By understanding the themes in my dream, I was better able to process the meaning behind it. Dream interpretation can open the door to important conversations that need to happen between yourself, your spouse and family before baby’s arrival.
Pregnancy may sometimes feel like a crazy roller coaster (and perhaps even manifest in your dreams as such), but it’s important to remember that both thrills and fears are to be expected during this time of great physical and emotional change. Instead of letting your dreams cause anxiety, embrace these thoughts—they’re your spirit’s way of preparing for a new adventure. These dreams are a positive step in your journey to motherhood.
Visit Dreamscience to have your pregnancy dreams recorded as part of a study at the Dream and Nightmare Laboratory at Sacre-Coeur Hospital. Participating will provide you the unique opportunity to facilitate viable research in the area of maternal dreams. (Don’t worry: Your crazy recollections will remain anonymous.)