A recent study, published in the journal Sleep, reveals that while most children have nightmares, persistent ones could point to something more serious. Night terrors, which typically involve panic and screaming during sleep, were also seen to heighten the risk.
The study was carried out by the University of Warwick and followed 6,800 children up to the age of 12. Researchers regularly asked parents about any sleep problems experienced by their children and at the end of the study those taking part were assessed for psychotic experiences, such as delusions or hallucinations.
The results showed that most of the children had nightmares at some point over the course of the study, but in 37% of cases the nightmares were reported to be a persistent problem.
Researchers from the University of Warwick said that having a long-term issue with nightmares and/or night terrors was linked to a higher risk of developing mental health problems in the future.
It is estimated that about 47 in every 1,000 children experience some sort of psychotic experience. Those who continue to have persistent nightmares at the age of 12 however, are three-and-a-half times more likely to suffer from psychotic symptoms and mental health problems.
The link between sleep issues and psychosis is still not clear. One theory points to traumatic events or bullying in early life, which may lead to both symptoms. Another school of thought believes it is the way some children’s brains are wired that leads to a difficulty in knowing what is real and what is not.
While treating the sleep issues may not prevent future mental health problems, researchers say that it can act as an early warning sign.
Lucie Russell, the director of campaigns at YoungMinds charity has said the following:
“This is a very important study because anything that we can do to promote early identification of signs of mental illness is vital to help the thousands of children that suffer.
“Early intervention is crucial to help avoid children suffering entrenched mental illness when they reach adulthood.”