By Sarah Best, LMSW
Almost every new parent, at one time or another, worries about their babies getting hurt or sick. In fact, researchers report that more than 90 percent of new parents experience what psychologists call “intrusive thoughts," frightening thoughts that they don't want to have and find troubling. Some find themselves worrying about medical crises like SIDS or whooping cough. Others have thoughts of accidents such as house fires or car crashes. And although it's probably not a topic of discussion on playdates, some women fear that they themselves might hurt their baby.
Why do we have such disturbing thoughts? Science suggests that parents — especially mothers during the postpartum period — are wired to be on the lookout for possible threats to their offspring. That's a good thing. But being on high alert can bring to mind scary possibilities, and these thoughts and images are often graphically detailed.
Some mothers notice these thoughts but can easily dismiss them. For example, they definitely don't like the idea of their baby having a seizure or being scalded in a bathtub, but they recognize that these disturbing events are very unlikely and can let thoughts of them pass without feeling too much distress. Sure, they worry about illnesses or accidents from time to time, but for the most part, they are able to put them aside and enjoy being with their baby.
Other moms find themselves preoccupied or even immobilized by scary thoughts. And those worries begin to interfere with their lives. They may check on their sleeping baby every hour to make sure he's breathing or find themselves unable to leave home for fear of germs.
Mothers can feel especially tortured and may start restricting activities when they worry they could be the one to cause harm to their baby. A mom who is afraid of dropping or mishandling her baby might avoid holding him. Moms who fear they might "snap" and intentionally hurt their babies can become hypervigilant about their own mental states, constantly searching for evidence that they are losing touch with reality.
Help is available if your thoughts are causing you a lot of distress or impacting your everyday choices. Feeling overwhelmed by these thoughts is a common symptom of both postpartum depression and anxiety, which affect up to 20 percent of childbearing women. But these conditions are treatable. With professional support, you can learn to manage them and enjoy being with your baby. And in time, you can feel confident and comfortable in your new role.
It's especially important to talk to your ob-gyn, midwife, or a mental health professional if you have thoughts of hurting your baby. The fact that these thoughts upset you is good evidence that you are committed to keeping your baby safe. So while it's very unlikely that these thoughts pose any risk to you or your baby, exploring your concerns with a trained professional can reassure you and help ease your mind.
But if you feel relieved rather than distressed when you think about acting on your thoughts, if you feel compelled to act on them, or if you are seriously afraid for your or your baby's safety, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room right away. Those types of symptoms suggest a more serious condition known as postpartum psychosis and require immediate attention.
The Postpartum Stress Center has an informative page dedicated to coping with scary thoughts during parenting. For help finding a mental health provider with expertise helping new moms manage upsetting thoughts, check out Postpartum Progress's excellent resource page or call Postpartum Support International's "warm line."
You — and most new parents — can take comfort in knowing that strange thoughts are a normal, if unwelcome, part of parenthood. With support, guidance, practice, and patience, you can learn to recognize these thoughts for what they are (just thoughts!) and find more joy and confidence as a mother.