Researchers find link between childhood nightmares and psychotic experiences

Children who have persistent nightmares in childhood are more likely to have psychotic experiences, such as hearing voices, at age 18 according to a new study.

The team, led by University of Warwick researchers, analysed data from a sample of over 4,000 children to determine whether disturbed sleep early in life (between 2 and 9, and at age 12) could predict later psychotic episodes at 18. Night terrors (the feeling of waking up scared without remembering what happened) and nightmares were associated with later psychotic episodes whereas sleepwalking was not.

The reasons for this relationship are unclear. One possibility is that the children have experienced trauma, which can cause both nightmares and psychotic episodes. Alternatively, depression or anxiety may have led to the nightmares and the later psychotic episodes. Persistent nightmares could even be the cause of the anxiety and stress, which triggered the later psychotic experiences.

This result suggests that persistent nightmares could be used as a marker of risk for later psychotic experiences. Though most people with nightmares will not develop psychosis, if a child has other risk factors, such as trauma or depression, persistent nightmares could be something for clinicians to look out for. If further work shows that the nightmares are in fact the cause of psychosis, then treating the nightmares (with therapy) could reduce the chance of psychosis in later life.

However, parents should not be concerned about nightmares in children according to Dr Andrew Thompson from the University of Warwick, the lead author of the study, as “obviously most nightmares and night terrors are normal and part of a normal development”. In addition, these psychotic experiences are fairly common in the normal population, with 5-10% of people experiencing them. They include hearing someone calling your name when they were not there or seeing shadows that are not there. Most of the time they do not indicate a psychotic disorder, but can develop into one such as schizophrenia.

The researchers will continue to study the children, to confirm whether nightmares and night terrors continue predicting psychotic episodes, and even the development of psychotic disorders, into adulthood.



A. Thompson, S. T. Lereya, G. Lewis, S. Zammit, H. L. Fisher, & D. Wolke (2015). Childhood sleep disturbance and risk of psychotic experiences at 18: UK birth cohort. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 1–7. doi: 10.1192/bjp.bp.113.144089


Image credit: flickr/Lovelorn poets



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