Do Nightmares Have a Purpose?


Do nightmares do anything more than just scare kids? Do they serve any purpose? Do newborns have nightmares?

Dr. Greene's Answer

Nightmares are an important means of addressing difficult events and emotions to weave them into the fabric of our minds in a constructive way. Traumatic events are known to cause a predictable pattern of nightmares: first come dreams that relive the event, then dreams that relive the primary emotion of the event using different scenarios (different pictures), then dreams that incorporate aspects of the event into other parts of life.1

Nightmares are generally thought to be most common at the ages of 3 to 5 years –the peak ages when children express fears — they are said to begin around that time, or shortly before. Conventional wisdom tells us that nightmares begin not too long before then.

The available evidence leads me to a vastly different conclusion: that just like other dreams, nightmares are most common in infancy. Stressful events, such as injections, circumcision (which should never be done without anesthesia), being left alone or dropped, or even feeling hungry, need to be learned about and integrated. It seems to me that anything worth crying about is worth dreaming about.

We know from older children that nightmares commonly follow surgery, tooth extraction, and motor vehicle accidents. 2,3,4Why wouldn’t they follow the ultimate extraction, childbirth?

We don’t want to believe that our little ones experience anything unpleasant. So strong is this desire that it led to the long-held (now finally and forcefully disproved) belief that newborns don’t feel pain when circumcised. How absurd!

Knowing how much young babies dream and cry (and wake up crying), it seems equally absurd to me to believe that all of their dreams are happy ones. Birth is a wonderful and terrible experience. There is much to be happy about and much to learn about in the weeks that follow. Babies’ dreams must incorporate and address those things that bring them pleasure and those that make them cry. In all likelihood, the peak age of crying, the first 6 weeks, is also the peak age of nightmares.

These nightmares are not unsuccessful dreams. Far from it! They help babies learn and grow. These nightmares may even be an important reason that crying diminishes after 6 weeks.


Footnote References:
1Psychiatry, 1998; 61:223-238
2 Anesthesia and Analgesia, 1999; 88:1042-1047
3 British Dental Journal, 1999 13; 186:245-247
4 European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 1998; 7:61-68


Last medical review on: May 09, 2008
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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