Children who suffer from nightmares and night terrors have an increased risk of developing delusions, hallucinations and other psychotic episodes, according to research published February 28. Although many children have nightmares, when the nightmares continue into adolescence the risk of psychosis increases, report researchers from the University of Warwick in the U.K.
"We certainly don't want to worry parents with this news; three in every four children experience nightmares at this young age. 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,” said researcher Dieter Wolke, Ph.D.
Details of the childhood sleep and nightmares research
Researchers examined data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), based in England. The group included over 6,700 children and involved multiple assessments.
The children in the group who had persistent nightmares between ages 2 and 9 were more likely to experience psychosis at age 12. The frequency of the nightmares influenced the risk of psychosis. The risk of psychosis increased by 16 percent for children with one period of nightmares. The risk increased to 56 percent for children with three or more periods of frequent nightmares.
Helen Fisher, Ph.D., one of the study’s authors, offers this tip for parents:
"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. 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."
Medline Plus defines psychosis as a “loss of contact with reality” including delusions and hallucinations. Delusions are “false beliefs about what is taking place or who one is.” Hallucinations are ”seeing or hearing things that aren't there.”
Psychosis is common in young adults. About three of every hundred young adults have a psychotic episode according to the Yale School of Medicine. Early diagnosis and treatment of psychosis leads to better recovery.
More information on Psychosis is available from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Massachusetts General Hospital.
The study “Childhood Parasomnias and Psychotic Experiences at Age 12 Years in a United Kingdom Birth Cohort” is published in the journal Sleep.