(Trigger Warning - we're talking about intrusive thoughts and postpartum mood disorders)
Did a chill run up your spine reading the title of this post? Did it bother you? Did it trigger memories? That's okay. This is a VERY difficult subject for many people to talk about and even more difficult to understand. The good news is that there are many, many people out there who have experienced the same thing as you, and even more who are available and ready to help.
Let's start at the beginning.
Think about what having a baby is "supposed" to be like: Beautiful photoshoots in the delivery room with full faces of makeup, cute little nightgowns for your hospital stay, a perfectly packed hospital bag. Breastfeeding is magical and easy. Your baby sleeps like a tiny angel every night. You sleep perfectly too. Your spouse and family are so supportive and cater to your every need. You are happier than you've ever been.
We all know that's a load of BULLSH*T, right?
This is more realistic: Screaming, crying, vomiting in the delivery room. Tons of wires and tubes sticking out of you, random people taking a check at all your private parts. You wear literal diapers to keep the flow of blood contained. Your nipples get all cracked and painful and breastfeeding isn't as easy as everyone said. You might not even be able to breastfeed at all. Your baby doesn't sleep more than two hours at a time, and as soon as you get them to sleep all you can think of are the zillion things you should be doing instead of taking a nap. If you have other kids, they're plastered to the TV for weeks on end. You eat like crap. You feel like crap. You're tired all the time. You have to decide between eating or taking a shower, and you often don't have time to do both. And, on top of it all, you beat yourself up because you're supposed to be enjoying this time SO much. Boo.
And that doesn't even cover traumatic birth experiences, single motherhood, teen pregnancy, and other difficult scenarios.
When we think about how being a new mother REALLY is, it's no wonder so many women (more than 50%!) find themselves battling with some sort of Postpartum Mood disorder. This ranges from mild depression to full on psychosis. Anxiety, depression, and OCD are all common at this time. Yes. Common. Lots of moms find themselves feeling like they need to hide their feelings in order to keep up a facade of perfect bliss, thinking that being sad means that they don't love their child or motherhood. In reality, we all deserve a freakin' break. You literally just created a living being inside your uterus using your own bodily tissues and vitamins, then pushed it through your vagina. There's nothing "normal" about it, when you really think about it! You've been through a lot!
So, when we come to intrusive thoughts, they're much more common than you might think. Studies have been shown that between 20-50% of women have thoughts about intentionally harming their baby. Intrusive thoughts are sudden and uncontrollable. They just pop into your head unprompted and make you wonder what the heck is going on.
So, what do I do? First, let's take a look at some facts. A wonderful study was done in 2022 by Nichole Fairbrother, PhD; Fanie Collardeau, MSc; Sheila R. Woody, PhD; David A. Wolfe, PhD; and Jonathan M. Fawcett, PhD to take a look at this specific phenomenon. (Link to the study here) I'll be quoting from this article as well.
"To assess how often new moms think about intentionally harming their infants, researchers completed phone interviews with new mothers from across Canada at 9 weeks and 21 weeks postpartum. They used a semi-structured interview protocol called the Postpartum Intrusions Interview to assess mental health and the prevalence of unwanted intrusive thoughts. The category includes any thoughts, impulses, or images that pop to mind.
Of the 340 new mothers interviewed, 151 — about 44 percent — reported experiencing thoughts of intentionally harming their babies."
Got that? 151 out of 340 reported intrusive thoughts about harming their baby. This is 44%. Other studies have shown ranges between 20% and 50%.
"To assess whether such thoughts predicted actual harm to one’s baby, the new moms also completed questionnaires that included items about physical aggression. Physical aggression included actions like shaking, hitting, spanking, burning, and choking their infant. To encourage honest disclosure, participants were repeatedly informed that the questions about aggression were anonymous.
Of the 151 women who reported thoughts of intentional harm, only 4 (2.6 percent) reported behaving aggressively toward their infant."
So let's break it down again, 4 out of 151 women actually behaved agressively. That's only 2.6%
These, and many other, studies have shown that women who experience intrusive thoughts are less likely to harm their child than even women who do not experience these thoughts. Along with this study, they found that:
"This is non-significantly lower than the rate of physical harm among the 189 women who did not report thoughts of intentional harm (6 of 189, or 3.2 percent)."
If you're a numbers person, I hope that helps. If not, let me help you out: New moms, whether experiencing intrusive thoughts or not, are EXTREMELY unlikely to harm their infants. The fact that you are having intrusive thoughts about harm means that your brain is reacting to your stress and anxiety by being over-aware of harm coming to your baby. This is SO important to remember!
I have another blog post about what you can actually DO once you realize you have intrusive thoughts. Intrusive thoughts can be a precursor to OCD behaviors, so learning how to stop the OCD cycle will be very helpful for you.
As always, make sure you find someone to talk to. It can be so so so scary to tell someone about your intrusive thoughts. But, let me tell you, it is a huge burden lifted to be able to share it with a professional who can help. If you're struggling with postpartum mood disorders, including OCD and intrusive thoughts, know that there are SO many people who can help you!
Merilee Ford, M.A.