It was the night after we bought the crib and assembled it that the strange dreams started. My husband put it together—a plain wooden crib—while I sat on our bed, folding baby clothes. We positioned the crib next to my side of the bed and then pretended to pick the baby up, comparing notes on techniques. I was 32 weeks pregnant and despite having three ultrasounds already, the crib and the clothes made our daughter seem suddenly real.
Perhaps that’s why the dreams started. It was as though, as she became more real to me in my waking hours, my subconscious morphed her into something strange and unreal. That night, I dreamed that the baby slipped out, early and unnoticed by me. My husband found her in the crib, look who’s here! I tried to dress her and she shrank in my arms until she was the size of a Barbie doll. It didn’t seem to perturb my dream-self. In fact, it was a common theme in the dreams that filled my sleep over the coming weeks— the baby was born an average size, but she shrank the more I interacted with her.
Another common theme was breastfeeding. Sometimes the baby would suck and suck at my breasts but nothing came out. I despaired that I couldn’t feed her. In another dream, in place of a mouth, she had a long suction tube and I watched as she latched on and sucked milk through her translucent protuberance. Again, to my dream-self nothing about this seemed strange. But the dreams that haunted my waking-self most were the baby-has-a-detachable-head dreams. Sometimes her head was attached with weak magnets and would frequently fall off. Other times, it was attached with snaps and I would unsnap her head to dress her (as she shrank and shrank before my touch), and then reattach it.
A few days after my baby dreams started, my husband started having them too. In his first baby dream, he was bathing our baby, only we’d had twins, and during the bathing process dinosaur shaped sponges kept appearing in the bath and he’d lose the babies in among them.
My mum started having baby dreams too. She also dreamed that I had twins. She dreamed that we were in a hotel and that we lost the babies. She frantically searched the endless corridors of the hotel in tears but couldn’t find them anywhere. My mother-in-law dreamed that she was pregnant. We were all baby dreaming now, as though whatever had caused my dreams was spreading.
At 34 weeks I started dreaming about the birth. In one dream I went to the hospital and woke up a week later with a scar across my stomach. I knew I must have had a cesarean section, but I didn’t know what had happened to my baby or why I’d been unconscious for a week. I kept asking what had happened but none of the nurses were allowed to tell me. All I knew was that my baby was somewhere in the hospital with her father. As much as I pleaded, I wasn’t allowed to leave the ward. In another dream, I gave birth to the baby without being in the room. I was standing in the corridor, wearing a hospital gown, and my husband came out of the birthing room to tell me she was here. I was confused, why hadn’t I felt any pain?
I went into the room and climbed up onto the bed. I asked my husband to put the baby on my chest, skin to skin. He lay her down on my chest, but she was on her back. I grew irritated. A man I didn’t recognize came in the room and introduced himself. I realised that the cord hadn’t been cut yet. I felt embarrassed at the sight of blood on my legs and the presence of this stranger. The nurse told me I had to deliver the placenta. She invited my husband and the stranger to stay, but the stranger quickly left when he realised what was about to happen. I tried to turn the baby over onto her stomach, but I struggled. Her head rolled around on a too-thin neck. Eventually, I got her positioned and she grabbed on to me with her tiny hands. She didn’t want to leave the womb, I said.
After the baby was born for real, the nights when I slept enough to dream felt rare and precious. One night, I slept enough to experience sleep paralysis. I started experiencing episodes of sleep paralysis as a teenager. The first time it happened to me I thought I was being visited by a ghost. My body turned to lead, I couldn’t move it, and I sensed a presence in the room. That night, between feeds, the ghost came back. It was slowly pulling the duvet off the bed, but the duvet was weighted and I felt it pushing me down into the mattress.
When I wasn’t sleeping, which was the majority of the time, I found myself hallucinating from tiredness. As I fed the baby, I would see spiders crawling along the floor at the edges of my vision, but when I turned my head there was nothing there. Objects morphed into people. A blanket bunched up on the couch became my husband, then my stepdad, then my mum. I felt as though I was losing my mind.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one. I have a stuffy of Babe, from the movie, that I got for Christmas as a kid, and I still keep it in the bed with me. It turns out, it’s not a good idea to keep a stuffed toy in the bed that’s exactly the size of your newborn baby. There were nights when I woke up cuddling the pig and panicked that I had actually bought the baby into bed with me and fallen asleep. I would startle awake to check the stuffed toy in my arms was still breathing, before realising the baby was fast asleep in her crib.
One night, as I stood over the baby’s crib, trying to decide if she was going to settle down or keep crying. I looked over to see my husband sitting up in bed rocking Babe.
“What are you doing?” I whispered.
“I’m rocking her.”
“The baby’s in her crib.”
My husband frowned, put the pig down, and went back to sleep. The next day I asked him about it. He’d been dreaming that the baby’s toys could feel whatever she was feeling. In his half-awake, sleep-deprived mind, he’d thought that because of the psychic link between the baby and her toys, if he rocked the pig, she would feel it. The sad expression on my husband’s face was the realisation that the psychic link only went one way, from baby to toys, not the other way round.
I don’t know precisely when I stopped having baby dreams, but now my daughter is nearly eighteen months, the days of strange baby dreams seem to be firmly over. If dreams are the unconscious mind’s way of processing and making sense of current or anticipated events, then I suppose it makes sense that I was having all those weird dreams, with similar themes cropping up again and again. After all, when I was pregnant people and books and parenting websites constantly told me how hard becoming a parent is, and how big of a change it is. Your life will never be the same again!
The only other periods in my life when I’ve experienced recurring dreams were during final exams in high school and college, and before my wedding day. Dreams in which things went wrong were a frequent occurrence—I forgot about an exam, I showed up late (for the exams and the wedding), I didn’t come prepared. And honestly, neither sitting exams nor getting married comes close to the sheer intensity and transformative capacity of parenthood.
I don’t tend to read much into dreams. I certainly don’t keep a dream diary or look up the meaning of my dreams in a dream dictionary (though I used to do both of those things as a teenager). I don’t think dreams mean anything and I don’t think they say much about one’s individual psyche, beyond the fact that we are all a bit strange at heart. But looking back, I think my baby dreams capture something of how surreal and exhausting parenthood can be. Just this week, some friends of ours had a new baby and as I cooed over the pictures, I also felt a deep appreciation for my daughter’s (mostly!) twelve hour sleep schedule.
Sweet dreams, dear reader.