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Frequent Childhood Nightmares Linked to Increased Risk of Psychotic Experiences

Frequent Childhood Nightmares Linked to Increased Risk of Psychotic ExperiencesA new study has found that children who suffer from frequent nightmares or bouts of night terrors are at an increased risk of psychotic experiences in adolescence.

The study, published in the journal SLEEP, found that children reporting frequent nightmares before the age of 12 were three and a half times more likely to suffer from psychotic experiences in early adolescence.

Experiencing night terrors doubled the risk of such problems, including hallucinations, interrupted thoughts, or delusions, according to researchers at the University of Warwick.

“Younger children, between two and nine years old, who had persistent nightmares reported by parents had up to one and a half times increased risk of developing psychotic experiences,” the researchers noted.

Nightmares, commonplace in young children, occur in the second half of sleep during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.

Night terrors, a sleep disorder, differ from nightmares and occur during deep sleep (non-REM) cycles in the first half of the night. When experiencing a night terror, the child often will scream and sit upright in a panicked state, unaware of any of the involuntary action.

The thrashing of limbs and rapid body movements are witnessed in more extreme cases, researchers report. Children wake up in the morning unaware of their activity throughout the night.

“We certainly don’t want to worry parents with this news — three in every four children experience nightmares at this young age,” said Professor Dieter Wolk. “However, nightmares over a prolonged period or bouts of night terrors that persist into adolescence can be an early indicator of something more significant in later life.”

For the latest study, researchers used data collected in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, known as Children of the 90s, a birth cohort study based in South West England.

Children were assessed six times between the ages of two and nine. The likelihood of experiencing psychotic experiences in adolescence increased with the incidence of nightmares, according to the findings.

“Those who reported just one period of recurrent nightmares saw a 16 percent rise, while those who reported three or more sustained periods of nightmares throughout the study saw a 56 percent increase in risk,” according to the researchers.

By the age of 12, around one in four (24.4 percent) of children in the study reported having suffered from nightmares in the previous six months, with fewer than one in 10 (9.3 percent) experiencing episodes of night terrors during the same period.

Researcher noted that the data is based on the children’s own reports and should be interpreted with caution.

Nevertheless, there is something parents can do.

“The best advice is to try to maintain a lifestyle that promotes healthy sleep hygiene for your child, by creating an environment that allows for the best possible quality of sleep,” said Dr. Helen Fisher of King’s College London.

“Diet is a key part of this, such as avoiding sugary drinks before bed, but at that young age we’d always recommend removing any affecting stimuli from the bedroom — be it television, video games, or otherwise. That’s the most practical change you can make.”

Source: University of Warwick

Scared child in bed photo by shutterstock.

Frequent Childhood Nightmares Linked to Increased Risk of Psychotic Experiences

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Frequent Childhood Nightmares Linked to Increased Risk of Psychotic Experiences. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 2 Mar 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.