Doctors don’t know exactly what the cause is, but you are certainly not alone, says Taraneh Shirazian, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at NYU Langone Medical Center. “It’s something that we see from time to time,” she says, “as well as just a general sense of anxiety and feeling emotional.”
Some women have pregnancy-related dreams (like not being asked if you want a C-section, or forgetting to feed a child who doesn’t exist yet) and some have seemingly unrelated ones (like getting buried in an avalanche with your mom or beating up your husband after discovering him covered in cocaine). Dr. Shirazian herself had some weird dreams when pregnant with her two kids. “I definitely had a lot of anxious dreams, like that I was in labor but no one was in the hospital that day, or the anesthesiologist wasn’t there,” she says.
There is a little bit of research on how common this is. A recent study published in the journal BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth looked at the frequency of nightmares during the last trimester of pregnancy compared to a control group. German researchers gave questionnaires to two groups: 406 women in their last trimester, and a control group of 496 nonpregnant women. The quizzes asked them to rate their dream recall, note how often they had nightmares, and, for the pregnant women, indicate if their dreams were about the baby. They also gave them stress-level questionnaires.
They found that 11 percent of pregnant women said they had nightmares at least once per week, compared to 2 percent of women in the control group. (Another 34 percent of expectant women had nightmares at least once a month.) Pregnant women were also more likely to remember their dreams and nightmares than the other women. When the researchers compared these numbers to the women’s stress questionnaires, they found that the frequency of nightmares was associated with perceived daytime stress, but stress was not related to the frequency of baby-related dreams. (Though it doesn’t seem like they asked if their nightmares were baby-related or not.)
So what’s going on? As with all things pregnancy, chalk it up to the changes happening in your body. “You have elevated hormone levels, twice the blood volume, you have the splaying of the rib cage to accommodate the uterus,” she says. Estrogen in particular continues to rise throughout the second trimester while two other hormones (HCG and progesterone) tend to peak around 12 weeks. Not only could these things affect your ability to sleep on their own, but they’re also physical reminders that your life is about to totally change.
“Whether it is exactly that the estrogen is causing you to have more dreams, or overall a woman is noticing her physiologic changes that then are causing her to think about it at night, we don’t know … but the physical and the mental are so intertwined,” she says. “Most women have a certain level of anxiety. They’re worried about the baby, they’re worried about the delivery, they’re worried about being able to take care of the child, and all of that can come out in the dreams that they’re having during the second and third trimesters, specifically.”
But the stress and anxiety of impending motherhood isn’t talked about as much as it should be, she says, probably “because we don’t have a great answer for it in the sense of ‘what exactly are you going to do about it?’ Hopefully, it’s a self-limited time for most women.” Talking to other moms or pregnant women could help, but if your anxiety is affecting your daily life, it’s probably a good idea to reach out to a therapist.
If you are having pregnancy stress dreams, it might be helpful to take a look at the situations you’re imagining. Are they realistic, like not having the car seat installed in time? If so, come up with a plan to tackle it. Are they totally bonkers, like finding kittens in the crib instead of your baby? You can probably write that one off. “Control is a big thing. Your body’s changing and you feel completely out of your element,” Dr. Shirazian says. “Maybe ask yourself, ‘What’s going to be my game plan if X happens in pregnancy?’”