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Frequent Nightmares in Older Kids May Spell Psychotic Traits

Update Date: Feb 28, 2014 05:27 PM EST

Frequent nightmares in children may predict psychotic experiences in adolescence, a new study suggests.

Researchers the from University of Warwick found that kids who suffer from frequent nightmares before the age of 12 are three and a half times more likely to suffer from psychotic experiences in early adolescence. Researchers also found that night terrors doubled the risk of problems like hallucinations, interrupted thoughts or delusions.

However, younger children between two and nine years old who suffer frequent nightmares were up to one and a half times more likely to develop psychotic experiences.

While nightmares are common in young children, their frequency reduces as children grow older. Nightmares occur in the second half of sleep during Rapid Eye Movement sleep, and can cause the sensation of waking suddenly with a sense of fear, worry and heart palpitations.

Night terrors are different from nightmares as they occur during deep sleep cycles in the first half of the night. Night terrors are characterized by loud screams sitting up involuntarily in a panicked state. People may thrash their limbs and demonstrate rapid body movements in more extreme cases. Researchers said children generally wake up in the morning unaware of their activity throughout the night.

"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," researcher Professor Dieter Wolke said in a news release.

Researchers looked at a group of children between the ages of two and nine. The findings revealed that the risk of experiencing psychotic experiences in adolescence increased with the incidence of nightmares.

Children who only reported one period of recurrent nightmares saw a 16 percent rise compared to a 56 percent rise in those who reported three or more periods of nightmares throughout the study

"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," Dr. Helen Fisher of King's College London said in a statement.

"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," added Lucie Russell, Director of Campaigns at YoungMinds.

The findings are published in the journal SLEEP

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