As a new mum, there is a lot think about; you’ll likely find yourself worrying about many things. That said, intrusive thoughts are completely normal, and there are ways to overcome them.
When you become a mother, you’re suddenly responsible for a vulnerable little human who needs to be cared for and loved. Equally, you’ll want to make sure that you can do everything you can to keep them out of harm's way and ensure their safety.
That said, it’s not uncommon for new mothers to encounter intrusive thoughts about their baby and fixate on what they or others might do to their child.
It can be really frightening and uncomfortable to experience intrusive thoughts but know that you are not alone, and there are ways to overcome these kinds of obsessive thinking patterns.
At Hiccups & Buttercups, we’ll walk you through:
- What intrusive thoughts are
- How common intrusive thoughts are in new mums
- How intrusive thoughts relate to postpartum OCD
- Guidance on how to navigate away from intrusive thoughts
What are intrusive thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are essentially distressing and disturbing thoughts or images one’s mind conjures which intrude or invade your day-to-day life. These thoughts or images are often violent or otherwise inappropriate and anxiety-driven.
Some examples of the intrusive thoughts mothers may encounter include:
- Envisioning physical harm being done to your child, whether that’s inflicting pain on them or fearing others will harm your child.
- Becoming hyper-aware of sickness and germs or believing that your child will contract a disease from bacteria on pacifiers and bottles.
- Fearing touching your child inappropriately accidentally or fearing that others may do the same.
At Hiccups & Buttercups, we reached out to clinical psychologist Claire Plumbly to get her insight on intrusive thoughts.
“Unwanted intrusive thoughts are underpinned by anxiety and an increased sense of responsibility for keeping a tiny human safe,” She said. “There is a lot of stigma around these thoughts, so many people do not wish to share them, but typical examples that I've come across in my therapy work with new mums are "What if my baby drowns in the bath", "what if my baby gets smothered as she/he sleeps", "what if I drop my baby?".
Are intrusive thoughts common?
If, as a new mother, you’ve been encountering intrusive thoughts, you may find solace in the knowledge that many women are experiencing the same thing as you. Intrusive thoughts as a new mum are really prevalent. Research shows that as many as between 70%-90% of mothers experience intrusive thoughts of infant-related harm. On top of that, as many as half of new mothers report experiencing intrusive thoughts of intentionally harming their baby.
According to researchers, mothers are most likely to encounter these kinds of thoughts during the first few weeks of their child’s birth. Moreover, evidence suggests that the intrusive thoughts experienced by mothers are not predictive of actual harming behaviours towards their children.
Dr Plumbly echoes this: “These thoughts do NOT mean that you wish to harm your infant or want any harm to come to them,” she said, “in fact, it means the opposite - that you care very deeply about your child and wish to protect them, this creates anxiety about keeping them safe, and the anxiety produces these unwanted intrusive thoughts.”
Intrusive thoughts and postpartum OCD
Intrusive thoughts can be a symptom of postpartum OCD, a perinatal disorder that is often misunderstood and misdiagnosed. When mothers develop postpartum OCD, they might experience some of the following:
- Intrusive thoughts and images
- Horror and fear of the obsessive, intrusive thoughts
- Fear of being alone with the child
- Obsessive hypervigilance over the child’s safety
- Cognitive compulsions, such as constantly checking the baby’s breathing, repetitive cleaning and sterilisation and needing constant reassurance
How to cope with intrusive thoughts
It can feel incredibly challenging to be confronted with such disturbing images and thoughts, and it may feel like you are unable to stop them, and this can be really overwhelming. That said, there are steps that you can take to make sure you feel safe and in control.
To begin with, it’s really important to understand that you’re not alone. Realising that so many women face the same maternal challenges and struggles can be a great source of comfort and can be really validating. There is no need to feel shameful or embarrassed that you’re having these kinds of thoughts, be compassionate with yourself, and try not to feel frustrated.
Take the time to check in with yourself, too. You may notice that you have certain triggers for your anxiety. Helping yourself identify these triggers may help you more easily navigate your intrusive thoughts.
You may find it helpful to reach out to a local or online support group. Peer support groups are a great way to share concerns, fears and struggles, and can help you to normalise how you are feeling.
If you feel particularly overwhelmed by the thoughts you are experiencing, it’s a good idea to check in with a medical professional and seek help that way. This may lead to your doctor or psychologist recommending CBT therapy, or medication, depending on the severity of your position. Reaching out for help is a courageous step and can be daunting, but your health practitioner is there to help.
Dr Plumbly says: “Whilst this is a really normal experience in new mothers (even in women who have never suffered from anxiety disorders in the past), it can lead to a lot of distress and if the intrusive thoughts and checking behaviours become very intense. These thoughts can get in the way of your day-to-day functioning. At this point, it’s worth speaking to a psychologist to help you find a way to manage this and improve your wellbeing.”
Entering motherhood, while exciting, can also be stressful and it’s really understandable to have concerns and encounter intrusive thoughts.
This can be really scary as a new mum, and you may feel that you’re doing things wrong, but you’re not. It’s important to find a space where you feel comfortable exploring your feelings and get the support you need and deserve, and there is support out there for you when you need it.
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