Northern Beaches Mums Group
Northern Beaches Mums Group

Scary Thoughts After Having a Baby

After giving birth, it’s really common for women to worry about their babies’ well-being. What can catch mums by surprise, however, are scary thoughts about something harming your baby. These thoughts or images can appear out of nowhere and are often distressing; professionals call them ‘intrusive thoughts’. The most common type of intrusive thought involves accidental harm to your baby, such as: 

  • Forgetting your baby in a hot car;
  • SIDS, or your baby stopping breathing overnight;
  • Dropping your baby; 
  • Your baby falling off the changing table;
  • Your baby becoming sick, ill, or injured. 

Mums can also experience thoughts of intentional harm, such as seeing yourself yelling at your baby, shaking, throwing, or hitting your baby. 

Intrusive thoughts often cause worry, distress, shame, guilt, and isolation. Who can you tell that you’ve had thoughts you might forget your baby somewhere or that you’ve imagined yourself shaking your baby? What if it actually comes true? What will others think of me? What if they think I’m a horrible mother or want to take my baby away? These are also scary thoughts!!

If you have intrusive thoughts about your baby, what can you do?

  1. Understanding that you are not alone goes a long way. Research shows that 70% – 100% of mums have experienced distressing thoughts about something bad happening to their baby in the months after birth¹². Intrusive thoughts are considered a normal postpartum experience. 
  2. Knowing what to expect is also helpful. Intrusive thoughts are most common in the first month after birth but typically fade with time in healthy women. However, if you are experiencing postpartum conditions like depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, then these thoughts don’t fade with time- so seek help, starting with a good general practitioner.
  3. Know that having intrusive thoughts does not mean that you will harm your baby or something terrible will happen to them. The research has found no link between intrusive thoughts and violence towards babies.
  4. Have you ever reflected on how you feel when you have an intrusive thought? Do you feel upset, concerned, or worried? What do these feelings tell you? Feeling distressed by the thought or idea that something bad could happen to your beautiful bubba tells you that you care about them deeply. That you love them and don’t want anything to happen to them. These feelings demonstrate that you are a caring mother. It is all too easy to beat yourself up for the unwanted thoughts that pop into your head, but your feelings give you the clear message that you want to care for and protect your baby.
  5. Typically, mums take steps to prevent imagined harm from happening. For example, if you worry about SIDS, then you might check your baby’s breathing multiple times overnight. If you worry about leaving them somewhere, you will keep checking on your baby to make sure that you don’t. If you worry about hurting your baby, then you’ll likely put the baby down and walk away, or maybe even avoid being alone with your baby. These actions show that you’re actively protecting your baby from a risk (even an imagined risk)- which is positive. It’s important to refocus on what you DO when you have an intrusive thought, rather than focusing on the intrusive thoughts themselves.
    6. If you find that your intrusive thoughts are particularly severe, frequent, or overly distressing, this is outside of the normal range and it’s best to seek professional help. Again, your general practitioner is a great place to start.

You are not alone, mama. Who knew that scary thoughts after birth are so common that they’re considered normal! Take the time to recognise what you are doing well: caring for and protecting your baby. And if you need it, seek help; you may be surprised what a difference this can make when you’re feeling distressed. 


Dr Emma Black is a Clinical Psychologist and mum of two boys. She works in private practice in Townsville and is passionate about supporting women as they become mothers. Dr Emma offers an online program to help women manage intrusive thoughts after having a baby, called ‘Let’s Talk About Scary Thoughts After Birth… And How To Survive Them’.

It’s available here: dr-emma-black.teachable.com/p/scary-thoughts-after-birth

References:

1. Brok, E. C., Lok, P., Oosterbaan, D.B. … van Eijndhoven, P. F. (2017). Infant-Related Intrusive Thoughts of Harm in the Postpartum Period: A Critical Review. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 78, e913-e923. DOI: 10.4088/JCP.16r11083

2. Fairbrother, N., & Woody, S.R. (2008). New mothers’ thoughts of harm related to the newborn. Archives of Women’s Mental Health, 11, 221-229. DOI: 10.1007/s00737-008-0016-7

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