Children who suffer from persistent nightmares may be at greater risk for psychotic experiences during their late teen years, according to a new study led by researchers at the University of Warwick.
The findings could have important implications for the way early nightmares and night terrors are viewed and addressed by professionals or caregivers.
“The presence of anxiety and depressive symptoms as confounding factors in those with sleep disturbance could potentially explain the findings. Experience of stressful events has also been related to both the development of both nightmares and psychotic symptoms in late childhood and may be important,” said lead author Dr. Andrew Thompson, from Warwick Medical School.
“It is likely that in some individuals, nightmares and night terrors have little significance to later psychopathology. However, in individuals with additional risks such as a family psychiatric history or a past exposure to trauma by adults or peers, such sleep problems may have greater significance and may also highlight other unnoticed psychopathology or trauma.”
The University of Warwick led team, which also included colleagues from University College London, Cardiff University, University of Bristol and Kings College London, looked at a sample of 4,060 individuals from a U.K. birth cohort.
They used parental reports on the child’s experience of regular nightmares between the ages of 2 and 9. They also used interviews to assess experiences of nightmares, night terrors and sleepwalking at age 12 and psychotic experiences at age 18.
They found that chronic childhood nightmares both at an early age (between 2 and 9) and at age 12 were significantly associated with new episodes of suspected or definite psychotic experiences at age 18.
At age 12, 24.9 percent of children reported having nightmares in the previous 6 months and 7.9 percent of the sample were found to be experiencing psychotic symptoms. There was around twice the odds of later experiencing psychotic symptoms in those earlier reporting nightmares.
Thompson noted that more research is needed, but that these initial findings do suggest that specific parasomnias such as persistent nightmares in children could be a potential risk indicator for the development of psychotic experiences and possibly psychotic disorder.
The study is published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.
Source: University of Warwick