How old do you need to be to have a near-death experience? Old enough, you may imagine, to be able to construct a narrative in your mind
How old do you need to be to have a near-death experience? Old enough, you may imagine, to be able to construct a narrative in your mind. Or to describe it in language.

The evidence, however, suggests that children as young as six months can have lucid visions - and even remember them years later.

Of course, no one can see into the mind of a baby. But consider a case documented in the medical journal Critical Care Medicine. The researchers writing in the journal had kept in touch with the parents of a six-month-old boy who'd nearly died in hospital during a serious illness.

Three years later, that same child was told by his parents that his grandmother was dying. He had just one question: was she going through the tunnel to meet God?

The 'tunnel', as the researchers knew, is a common component of near-death experiences (or NDEs), as is the presence of a being - who is sometimes defined in religious terms and sometimes not.

Other very young children have reported similar experiences. Take the case of Tom, the four-year-old son of a British soldier called Gary, who was based in Berlin. Tom had been complaining of stomach pains and was writhing in agony when doctors discovered that the boy had an intestinal blockage, and immediately operated.

It was 'touch and go', Gary told me, but Tom survived. A few months later, Gary had a day off and asked him where he'd like to go. The boy said he wanted to go to 'that park' again.

When asked which park, he said: 'The one through the tunnel that I went to when I was in the hospital. There was a park with lots of children and swings and things, with a white fence around it. I tried to climb over the fence, but this man stopped me and said that I wasn't to come yet and he sent me back down the tunnel and I was back in the hospital again.'

Like those of adults, the NDEs of even very small children contain one or more of the usual components, such as the tunnel, a bright light, meeting dead relatives, out-of-body experiences, seeing a beautiful garden and coming to a barrier and being ordered to return to life.

The most common component children report is a sense of overwhelming happiness. This leaves such a lasting impression that it can even have a negative effect on children who experience it.

Dr Phyllis Marie Atwater, a researcher who's collected hundreds of cases of childhood NDEs, says that some have tried to commit suicide afterwards in order to find their way back to their blissful visions. Such cases, however, are rare.

Usually, children who experience NDEs report being given the option of returning to life and deciding to take it. The reason is often that the child doesn't want to upset its parents.

As an intensive care nurse who has also done a PhD on near-death experiences, I've personally come across many such cases. If a child is a bit older, though, he may also say he felt the need to return to earth in order to accomplish something in his life.

This is what happened to Natasha, now aged 33, from Cardiff, who is deaf.

At the age of nine, she'd had such a severe bout of whooping cough that the doctor had told her parents she was unlikely to survive the night. She was at home and fast asleep when she was woken by a bright light.

'The light was spilling into the room around the edge of the door and I could hear my name being called - even though I'm profoundly deaf,' she recalled. 'I got up to see what the light was, and turned round to see myself still in the bed, asleep.

'But the voice kept calling me, so I opened the bedroom door and it was just this pure brilliant white light. I stepped into it and kept walking towards the voice. I was just walking in light; there wasn't anything else.

'Then I was in a room and realised there was a presence behind me. He put a hand on my shoulder but told me not to turn around. I had to go back, he said, because I was important and had a job to do.'

The next day, the crisis in Natasha's illness had passed. But she didn't tell anyone about her experience for many years. 'I thought they'd think I was lying or crazy,' she said.

The NDE remained vivid in her mind, and although she's not religious, she says it's given her inner strength and self-belief - 'as though I'm here for a reason'.

Like Natasha, many children fail to tell their parents about an NDE. Often, however, it's because they assume the vision is something that happens to everyone.

Only when they grow up do they realise they've experienced something unusual - something that may even have changed their lives.

In the Eighties, Dr Melvin Morse - who worked at an American paediatric intensive care unit - decided to carry out research on children who'd had NDEs and see them again at regular intervals. The results were astonishing.

Ten years on, his 30 childhood NDE survivors, many of whom had their visions when their hearts had stopped, appeared to be leading charmed lives. They were good at schoolwork, they were mentally stable, they had empathy for others and not one of them had become addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Comment: It seems that understanding and acceptance of death and 'the beyond' give a certain perspective that allows one to live a better life on Earth. Perhaps if we didn't so fear and ignore death as a society, there would be more of these people.

According to Dr Atwater's own vast NDE data-base, child survivors are likely to have long-lasting relationships when they're older - while people who have NDEs as adults, for some reason, have a higher divorce rate than average. In addition, the child survivors had lower blood pressure than average, and more sensitivity to light and sound. Intriguingly, their tolerance of prescription drugs decreased as they grew older.

Dr Atwater also found that many considered themselves to be spiritual. However, their spirituality was often quite separate from the religion in which they'd been brought up.

In a few cases, church ministers had actually complained that children who'd experienced NDEs were disruptive - because they had asked questions clerics had been unable to answer.
  • Some names have been changed. Extracted from The Wisdom Of Near-Death Experiences by Dr Penny Sartori, to be published by Watkins Publishing on February 6 at £10.99. 2014 Dr Penny Sartori. To order a copy for £9.99 (incl p&p) call 0844 472 4157.
"It happened to me and I felt euphoric", Corinna Honan writes

Mine was the unvarnished, bargain-basement version. No luscious flower borders, no playback of my life, no kindly-looking man in a white robe, not one solitary angel.

But I have certainly had a near-death experience. I know it wasn't a dream. Dreams can be vivid, but their intensity soon dissipates. They don't keep hijacking your thoughts and pounding you all over again with overwhelming emotion.

It happened some years ago, when I was in my 20s, before I knew that these bizarre visions even had a name.

A year after joining the Daily Mail as a news reporter, I had been sent to Corfu to write a travel piece on learning to sail. I was assigned to a small yacht - part of a flotilla led by a captain, his engineer and the PR for the company.

I was happy: I'd just bought my first flat, I'd met the man I'd eventually marry and I'd made it to Fleet Street. And this was certainly the first job I'd ever had that involved loafing in the sun and boarding a rubber speedboat every evening to sample the local tavernas.

On the night in question, it was the captain's birthday. Two or three people drank far more than usual, and one of them was in charge of the speedboat taking us back to our yacht. I was sitting on its squishy rubber side as we zoomed into the dark night.

In our mellow mood, none of us noticed that our driver had forgotten to switch his lights on. At full speed, he crashed into a yacht at anchor.

My back took some of the impact - but I didn't know this. In a split second, I'd fallen unconscious and tumbled into the bottom of the speedboat.

So, no warning whatsoever that the accident was about to happen: not one of us had even seen the yacht looming. And there was no time to think or cry out.

Yet in that tiny sliver of time between consciousness and the void, time slowed right down. I became aware that I was wafting down a long, dark tunnel. I felt calm and relaxed. There was a bright light at the end that was acting as a kind of magnet, with a slow but even pull.

The tunnel was straight, with indeterminate walls, and the light - which didn't hurt my eyes - grew steadily brighter as I approached it.

None of this was frightening. My brain had become a puddle of pure emotion. Euphoria, if you like. I remember thinking the following words: 'I'm dying, and I'm happy about it.'

Actually, I'm convinced I said them out loud. I have no idea how long I was unconscious but it must have been for some time. My companions had somehow heaved me into the yacht involved in the crash. Then blackness descended again.

The following morning, I woke up in a slimy sleeping-bag. It took a while to register that it was drenched in blood - from a deep cut on my left hand. And that I was in a stranger's yacht.

Surprisingly, I felt no panic at all, and no pain. Still high on my vision, I kept replaying the tunnel, the slow pull towards the light, and those words: 'I'm dying, and I'm happy about it.' Ridiculous! How could I have been happy to die? And, anyway, I hadn't.

It had been a near thing, though. As I was to discover later, two of my vertebrae were fractured, a couple of ribs had left their moorings, my sternum was cracked, my left thumb joint had shattered like an egg-shell, my index finger was broken and I had a severe whiplash injury.

A dentist whose yacht was parked nearby stitched up my dangerous cut; a tiny Greek clinic set my hand in plaster.

I seemed to spend a lot of that day grinning idiotically. Was I in shock? No doubt - but I was also in a state of semi-euphoria and feeling only the tiniest flickers of pain.