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How to Overcome Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts in Postpartum

mother standing and holding her newborn baby

“What if my baby’s heart stops beating and I don’t know?” “What if there isn’t a heartbeat at the next ultrasound?”. Mothers commonly experience these unwanted, intrusive thoughts during pregnancy – and they can continue into postpartum.

In pregnancy, we have a fragile baby within our body that we may already feel connected with. We suddenly have a far greater responsibility to someone else.

We might feel more protective and more aware of external stimuli and potential threats to our baby, and this awareness could trigger some unpleasant thoughts.

Maybe you experienced similar thoughts during your pregnancy? Or perhaps during the postpartum period? Keep reading to learn more about where these thoughts often stem from and what you can do to overcome them.

mom playing with her newborn baby

Note: this blog post is for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose or treat. Please consult your doctor or the PSI Hotline if you are concerned about your mental health or have urges to harm yourself or others.

Is it normal to have bad thoughts about my baby?

Thoughts – perhaps even visualizations – such as, “what if I drop my baby walking down the stairs and she dies” can creep in after birth.

These unsettling and spontaneous thoughts are known as “intrusive thoughts.” And they are most definitely that, unwelcomed and out of nowhere.

The majority of soon-to-be or new moms experience intrusive thoughts and a study suggests upwards of 70-100% of moms experience them at some point in postpartum. These thoughts could be triggered by hormonal, environmental, or psychological stressors.

Despite so many mothers experiencing them, most aren’t aware of what they are and how commonly they occur. This could partly be due to the stigma and shame attached to maternal mental health and the societal pressure to be the “perfect mom.”

When looking at intrusive thoughts, it is essential to be mindful that you did not do anything wrong to cause these thoughts, and having them does do not by any means suggest you are an inadequate caregiver.

Yes, these thoughts can be hugely disturbing; however, they are not suggestive of hidden messages or any unconscious desires.

Also, intrusive thoughts can feel even more overwhelming when we are unaware of what they are. Identifying and understanding these thoughts can help them feel less daunting and paralyzing.

mother standing and holding her newborn baby

How do I deal with postpartum intrusive thoughts?

Before we dive in, it’s important to note that everyone experiences intrusive thoughts in their own way. While the thoughts are all different, they are centered around harm coming to the baby.

So, let’s have a look at how to deal with – and overcome – intrusive thoughts.

1. Identify an intrusive thought when it happens

The first step in coping with intrusive thoughts is acknowledging what they are there. Once we name it, we can tame it.

Once we have identified these are intrusive thoughts, we can calm the fight or flight response within our bodies and regain our executive functioning.

For example, “Oh, my goodness, that was a terrifying thought that crossed my mind; I know they are common, and many new moms experience these intrusive thoughts, but that felt uncomfortable.”

2. Reassure yourself and check for safety

Sometimes these thoughts come up, and it’s a protective instinct to keep the baby safe. Intrusive thoughts can be around losing control or not being able to keep your child safe.

You could ask yourself and check for safety, “am I safe? Is baby safe?” and then re-affirm “I am safe, my baby is safe” if you are, in fact, safe.

Try and view these thoughts with curiosity rather than judgment.

3. Share your thoughts with a safe person

Another step would be getting the thoughts out of our minds and sharing with someone who allows us to feel safe and supported.

When we deny these thoughts, they can come back stronger this could be since in denying them, we are obsessing or ruminating over them, or in denying them, we may be suggesting they are shameful, which is far from the truth.

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We could share our thoughts with a therapist, friend, family member or writing them down in a journal. Sharing these thoughts is beneficial for ourselves and others as in sharing, we are normalizing the experience for other moms.

mother kissing her newborn baby

Mental illness and intrusive thoughts

For most, intrusive thoughts, although nerve-wracking and uncomfortable, do not pose any grave danger and are not indicative of a psychiatric diagnosis. And, as mentioned above, they can be prevalent for new mothers.

OCD and intrusive thoughts

It is valuable to note that intrusive thoughts are not the same as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder OCD. At the same time, these are just thoughts, an individual with OCD experiences an intense urge to overcome these obsessions using compulsions such as washing, counting, tapping, etc.

Many new moms experience these thoughts and do not have a perinatal mood disorder. However, if the intrusive thoughts begin to dictate your actions, it is worth seeking professional support.

For example, say you are carrying your baby down the stairs, and the thought of “what if I lose control and throw the baby?” pops up unexpectedly. From then on, you avoid ever using the stairs again.

If the thought dictates your actions or stops you from doing things you would typically do, it would be advisable to chat to a mental health professional to receive some extra support.

Mood interruptions and intrusive thoughts

If the intrusive thoughts are pervasive or affecting our mood, perhaps there is a need to take a closer look at our mental health. It is essential to look at our subsequent thought too.

Say an intrusive thought pops up like, “he’s going to fall out of the stroller and hit his head! He could become unconscious.” If the follow-up thought is something like, “it would be a real relief not to have to worry about him anymore,” then professional support is recommended.

This support will help mom work through these challenges and support her in being the incredible mom she already is to her children.

More mental health resources

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