Intrusive thoughts in motherhood
Unwanted, intrusive thoughts are really common after we have a baby, especially in early motherhood when our threat system is on high alert. Adapting to such a huge responsibility is obviously hugely terrifying so it’s not surprising, research shows 90% of new mothers suffer from some form of intrusive thoughts.
With my first baby I was so nervous she would stop breathing I couldn’t sleep for weeks and I had to constantly check her throughout the night. I also dropped her off the sofa when she was about four weeks old because I was so exhausted. I then started having intrusive thoughts I had caused her brain damage. I didn’t tell anyone apart from my husband because I thought they would think I was a bad Mum. The crazy thing was when I finally did, my friend laughed, she had two children and reassured me everyone’s baby has rolled off the sofa or the bed, and I can’t tell you the relief that gave me. Four years on I’m pretty sure it hasn’t caused any long-term damage but even writing it I can still feel the shame I felt when it happened.
Intrusive thoughts about accidentally harming your baby are something nearly all women experience. Thoughts about intentionally harming babies are also very common. Many Mum’s thoughts include screaming at their baby and shaking or throwing the baby. These harmful thoughts can pop into a mother’s mind unexpectedly and evoke horror – even though they would never deliberately hurt their baby.
These feelings can cause intense shame, guilt or horror which means avoid talking about them. This shame keeps us from sharing which only compounds them into making motherhood a terrifying experience. The very fact you feel ashamed or horrified about having these thoughts is a strong sign that you’re not going to hurt the baby. Research shows that experiencing these unwanted thoughts makes you no more likely to deliberately hurt your baby than any other parent.
What gives your thoughts power is focussing and worrying about their significance. It can start to make them feel even more real. Once you start to fixate on intrusive thoughts and start to feel more shame about them, the need to keep them a secret from others grows. These thoughts can seem to appear out of nowhere and can cause huge amounts of anxiety, but they have no meaning in your life. They’re not warning messages or red flags, they’re simply thoughts.
What can help?
Talking really helps.
Talking about intrusive thoughts can bring huge relief and can help to make sense of them. Try talking about something small at first to a friend, family member or partner. Talking about your intrusive thoughts and feelings can help to realise you are not a bad Mum and feel less alone and your friend may have experienced something similar.
Practising mindfulness skills to help you notice your thoughts – and let them go.
How we respond to the thoughts in the moment can be really helpful. The more we fight or struggle against our thoughts, the more they grow in power and intensity.
The next time you experience an unwanted thought of harm about your baby, try telling yourself gently: “This is just a thought, it is not real and it does not make me a bad Mum, this is just about my fear of being able to keep my baby safe. This practice of noticing your thoughts, acknowledging them with and then letting them go allows you to step back from your thoughts – giving you more space to respond rather than react.
I like the idea of giving your negative thoughts a name- it can be a great way of separating your thoughts from who you are.
If you’re struggling with your intrusive thoughts, talking to a GP can be helpful. Alternatively, this is something counselling can really help to break down so please contact me if you would like to organise a consultation.