Why new moms have scary thoughts about their babies

In Kate Rope's new book, Strong as a Mother, she talks about the terrifying but rarely talked about thoughts that new moms get postpartum.

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“I had intrusive thoughts of falling down our wooden stairs while holding the babies, and crushing them. These thoughts got pretty graphic and troubling, but I didn’t mention them because I thought they were crazy, and if I spoke them out loud, someone would take my babies and have me committed.” —Jessica, Atlanta, Georgia 

“I would have thoughts like I would hit [my baby’s] head when walking through a doorway or he would be dropped. I could see it in my head.” —Amy, Houston, Texas

“The weight of being this person’s way of being alive was incredibly heavy for me. My mind began seeking out some of the most dramatic ways I could fail at that, including tripping and dropping him. What if I did? It came from a place of realizing how vulnerable he was and how responsible I was.” —Jessica, Minneapolis, Minnesota

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Have you ever been waiting on a subway platform and thought, What if I jumped in front of the train? Or maybe you were driving down the road and for a brief second had a vision of veering into oncoming traffic. These flashes of weird, unexpected, and often uncharacteristic images and thoughts are pretty much universal according to experts. It’s the brain’s way of testing things out, identifying dangers, and keeping us safe. And parenthood is no different. In fact, “intrusive thoughts,” as they are called, tend to bloom in those early weeks and months of trying to keep a small human alive and well.

“Everybody has unwanted thoughts that go against who they are as a person,” says Jonathan Abramowitz, professor and associate chair in the department of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Our brains are creative, and we wonder about whether we could do certain things or whether certain things could happen. That’s just how the brain works. That’s part of being human.”

Abramowitz is one of the country’s foremost experts on intrusive thoughts and has found that “people especially tend to have these thoughts about things that are important to them.” (Hello, babies!) Our new babies are really important to us, and keeping them safe is our most important job. So, what do we do? Immediately, and understandably, we start to come up with images of potential dangers. We are on the lookout for anything that could possibly harm them, and, yes, that includes ourselves.

woman standing, covering her faceNew survey reveals parents' biggest fears

In fact, Abramowitz’s research has shown that as many as 91 percent of new moms and 88 percent of new dads experience thoughts of harm coming to their babies.

“I think on some level we are evolutionarily programmed to do this,” says Margaret Howard, PhD, professor of psychiatry and human behavior and medicine at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. “Back in prehistoric times, there were lots of dangers lurking, so I think there’s still a little part of our primitive brain that has that element of hypervigilance. What it speaks to is a mother’s recognition of the fragility of her new baby and also this primal urge that mothers have to protect and keep their offspring safe.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that it might not be really scary or uncomfortable to have these thoughts, and many parents are afraid to share them with anyone, says Karen Kleiman, LCSW, founder of the Postpartum Stress Center in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, because “they think they’re going mad, and that if they tell anybody they are going to have their baby taken away.”

Do these thoughts mean I could harm my baby?
A lot of women are scared to share these worries, because of the very rare but very tragic stories we hear in the media about moms hurting their babies or themselves. There is an extremely rare postpartum psychiatric emergency, postpartum psychosis, during which women can be at risk for harming themselves or their babies. But there is one key differentiating factor between the everyday intrusive thoughts most new moms experience and postpartum psychosis (which affects less than one in one thousand new moms), and that is feeling disturbed by the thoughts.

“There is a continuum of possible thoughts from ‘Is my baby getting enough food?’ all the way to ‘What if I take this knife and do something violent to my baby?’” says Kleiman. “It does not matter where your thoughts fall on that continuum; the scarier thoughts are not worse. What matters is how these thoughts make you feel.”

For women who experience postpartum psychosis, if they have thoughts about harming themselves or their children, the thoughts usually make sense to them and may feel like the right thing to do for the baby. For instance, a mom may believe she has harmed her child in some irreparable way and ending the child’s life may seem—in her psychotic state—like the only way to save him from this perceived harm. (Any mother experiencing these kinds of delusions needs immediate medical attention. Postpartum psychosis is serious, but also very treatable.)

However, the vast majority of women experience intrusive thoughts as weird, abnormal, even disturbing, but they don’t make sense to them. Rather, the thoughts feel out of character, shocking, and sometimes profoundly upsetting, and there are things you can do to cope with them. It is also important to know whether your response to them is a sign that you are experiencing an anxiety disorder.

How to manage scary thoughts
Trying to will these unwanted thoughts away is not going to work. “If you try not to think about a pink elephant, the first thing you are going to think about is a pink elephant,” says Abramowitz. Instead, Abramowitz recommends acknowledging and observing the thoughts. When you let them “come along for the ride,” says Abramowitz, you can see they’re not what they seem to be and develop a healthy relationship with them. “You learn how to be good at having the thought rather than trying to control the thought,” says Abramowitz.

And, says Howard, “these thoughts tend to fade with time.” Research shows that these worries tend to ebb and flow and may be more frequent around six weeks after your baby is born but then dissipate over the next month or so.

One way to help alleviate the worry that can accompany these thoughts, says Abramowitz, is just educating families before birth about how common they are. That alone can decrease the likelihood that a parent will develop an anxiety disorder related to them. So maybe reading this is helping you feel better. Or maybe it isn’t.

Can’t just brush off your intrusive thoughts? Find out more about when scary thoughts become obsessions, and talk to your doctor about getting help.

From Strong as a Mother: How to Stay Healthy, Happy and (Most Importantly) Sane from Pregnancy to Parenthood by Kate Rope, copyright © 2018 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press. On sale May 1, 2018.

Read more:
3 helpful resources for postpartum depression
How to deal with postpartum anxiety 

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