“We were only home from the hospital about 4 days when I started having these really scary thoughts. It felt like it would be so easy to drop her, or squash her head accidentally or even worse, do something to deliberately hurt her- even though I didn’t want to.
It felt so overwhelming to love this little person so much but then be so troubled by these terrible thoughts. They would come into my mind unannounced, and because I didn’t tell anyone, they would hang wound for a while. It was like torture.
As if having the bad thoughts wasn’t enough, I then judged myself for having them. I assumed that I was a bad mum, I wasn’t cut out for motherhood and that maybe she would be better off without me. It wasn’t until I saw a perinatal psychologist that I was told lots of mums have these thoughts, that while they are very painful, they are relatively ‘normal’.”
Just like the story above, many mums have scary thoughts. In fact, in her book “Good moms have scary thoughts”, Karen Kleinman states that “as many as 90 percent of mothers admit to experiencing intrusive, frightening thoughts about themselves and their babies”. They might be very scary thoughts or images about the baby accidentally getting hurt in various ways, or they might include thoughts about deliberate harm to the baby. These kinds of thoughts and images can cause obvious distress for women in the postpartum period and are often accompanied by feelings of shame, guilt, fear, and self-loathing.
Making matters worse, many mums will not talk about these thoughts with anyone else due to stigma, shame, and embarrassment that they have had these thoughts in the first place.
If you have had intrusive thoughts, it is important to remember that having these thoughts does not mean they will come true or mean that you will act on them. Research supports this and validates that having these thoughts does not lead to harming your child.
When we refer to scary thoughts, it includes thoughts that are both negative, unwanted, repetitive, intrusive, and distressing. When we consider this definition, the word intrusive highlights how invasive and seemingly uncontrollable these thoughts can be. Intrusive also helps to conceptualise how much these scary thoughts can interfere with daily life. Women might find they have disturbing thoughts while changing a nappy, bathing the baby, driving the car…. Basically, any activity may be interrupted by these thoughts and catch you off guard. Some women have even reported that their scary thoughts are quite detailed and graphic, adding to the feeling of horror.
Currently we don’t understand exactly why women have such thoughts, but it is likely that hormonal changes, sleep deprivation and adjusting to the demands of motherhood can contribute. In addition, we know that women with a history of anxiety may be more likely to have scary thoughts. If we consider them from a biological perspective however, we know that the perinatal period is a time of heightened awareness designed for us to be more attuned to the safety of our babies - it is normal for our brain to alert us to dangers and to be ‘scanning’ the environment for things that could hurt them.
Often, we see that scary thoughts trigger a chain reaction of sorts, catching you in a loop. For example, you might have a thought you consider scary (for example, “I don’t like being a mum”) and try to squash the thought or get rid of it immediately (by ignoring it or distracting yourself in some way). You may also keep this thought to yourself and really beat yourself up about it, adding to your internal pain. You might think, “I am a bad mum”, or “I shouldn’t have become a mum”. The thoughts themselves then become something to be feared so you may try and avoid having these thoughts again which can only strengthen them… and the cycle continues.
If this sounds familiar to you please remember that YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Many mums feel this way and have these thoughts. For some mums the thoughts just pass by and they don’t pay too much attention to them. If for some reason, yours are sticking and impacting how you feel about yourself you can do some small things to help (and obviously speak to a perinatal psychologist if they persist).
1. Remind yourself that that thoughts are just thoughts- they are not reality.
Thoughts may or may not be important and we can choose to pay attention only if they’re helpful. Thoughts are not orders or things to obey. Thoughts may or may not be wise. Because you had the thought, doesn’t mean you will hurt your baby, or you are a bad mum. It’s just a thought much like the million other thoughts we have in a day.
2. If it is hard for you to remind yourself that these scary thoughts are just thoughts, you can practice some strategies to unhook from these thoughts. For example, you might give the thoughts a name, write down the scary ones somewhere private, or imagine them written on leaves in a stream, passing you by. These cognitive defusion strategies can be helpful to create distance between yourself, and the thought.
3. Tell someone. These thoughts become powerful and impactful when we feel that we must deal with them alone. When we say them out loud and talk about their impacts, it can help to lessen their hold. You might talk to another mum, a friend or family member, a partner, or a health professional.
While these strategies might be helpful for you, if the thoughts persist and you are feeling more distressed by them please contact your GP for a mental health care plan or talk to your maternal health nurse.
When should you be concerned? While the scary thoughts are common, if you start to have intention or plan to hurt yourself or your baby, please seek immediate help through crisis support services. Please see a list of these here.