Mom holding her newborn

It can come as a shock to many new moms when they experience anything less than happy thoughts after their baby is born. But for the vast majority of new moms, it’s common to have scary, unwanted intrusive thoughts after birth.

Postpartum intrusive thoughts typically involve infant-related harm. It could be thoughts of something happening to your baby or you doing something intentional to harm your baby. Unwanted thoughts can also appear as visual images in your mind.

It’s important to know that you’re not alone in having disturbing postpartum intrusive thoughts. Though stressful, these intrusive thoughts are common. At least 70% of new moms report having unwanted, intrusive thoughts about infant harm, according to a study published in BMC Psychiatry. And 50% of new moms report having intrusive thoughts related to intentionally harming their baby.

If you have postpartum intrusive thoughts, here’s what you should know to take better care of yourself and your baby — and how to get treatment for postpartum intrusive thoughts.

Common Intrusive Thoughts After Birth

Having postpartum intrusive thoughts can leave you feeling ashamed, afraid, and stressed. You can feel guilty or think only you have these unwanted thoughts.

Scary, intrusive thoughts often come on suddenly and without warning. They can include both ideas and images that are violent, sexual, bizarre, or socially taboo. They may be irrational. Some thoughts and images can happen once. Others may repeat at random or happen constantly.

Examples of common postpartum intrusive thoughts and images include the following happening to your baby:

  • Suffocating or dying by sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
  • Falling off the changing table.
  • Drowning or getting scalded with hot water while getting a bath.
  • Flying out of their car seat.
  • Getting dropped on the floor or down the stairs.

Postpartum intrusive thoughts can additionally include thoughts of harming yourself or suicide. New moms may also have unwanted, repetitive thoughts about their relationship with their partner or friends and family. Postpartum intrusive thoughts can include ideas like:

  • What if I can’t love this baby?
  • What if this baby doesn’t love me?
  • My family would be better off without me.
  • I’m having sexual thoughts about my baby.
  • I can’t be trusted to care for this baby.

Why Do Intrusive Thoughts Happen After Birth?

In general, intrusive thoughts are often a reaction to stress, trauma, or anxiety.

Postpartum intrusive thoughts are a symptom. They aren’t who you are and don’t define you as a parent.

Intrusive thoughts after birth can happen for several reasons. These include:

Hormonal changes

Postpartum intrusive thoughts typically are strongest and occur most often the first few weeks after giving birth. That is when estrogen and progesterone levels drop dramatically.

Postpartum depression and intrusive thoughts

For some new moms, scary, unwanted thoughts and images are linked to postpartum depression. It’s a condition that affects 1 in 8 moms up to a year after giving birth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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Underlying mental health conditions

Along with postpartum depression, some new moms may have an undiagnosed anxiety disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Both of these can contribute to postpartum intrusive thoughts.

A parent’s natural instinct is to want to protect their child from harm. But that parental concern can also morph into constant anxiety. OCD can also occur if you don’t receive help for your intrusive thoughts.

How Can I Cope With Intrusive Thoughts Postpartum?

Managing intrusive thoughts begins with your mental health. It’s important for new moms to take steps to manage their mental health. An easy first step to take to manage intrusive thoughts is seeing a counselor or therapist and sharing your thoughts and worries.

It is also important to care for your own health. Taking better care of yourself helps you to take better care of your newborn.

If you’re a new mom, make sure to follow these self-care steps:

  • Get enough quality sleep.
  • Ask for help with daily tasks and chores.
  • Take time out for yourself to relax and reduce stress.
  • Don’t try to do everything yourself.

To keep intrusive thoughts from taking over, try these tips:

  • Acknowledge the thoughts but don’t give them weight. Remind yourself that intrusive thoughts don’t mean you’re a bad mother. And you won’t always feel this way.
  • Keep your brain busy by doing things that require concentration, like a crossword puzzle, sudoku, or simple math problems.
  • Distract yourself by taking a walk, reading a book, or listening to music.
  • Share the thoughts with someone you trust. It can help you feel better to connect with someone else. You might even learn they’ve gone through something similar.

When Should I See My Doctor for Postpartum Intrusive Thoughts?

Even though you’re not alone in having postpartum intrusive thoughts, it’s natural to wonder what it means about you as a mother or caregiver. You may also worry whether it’s safe for you to take care of your own baby.

The study published in BMC Psychiatry found preliminary evidence that having these thoughts does not increase the chances you will harm your body. And you can put this fear to rest, too: No one will take away your baby for only having these thoughts.

But it is important to let your doctor or ob-gyn know right away if you are having thoughts of harming your baby or yourself. Intrusive thoughts and OCD symptoms can interfere with the bonding relationship of parent and child. The sooner you reach out, the sooner you can get the help you need for both of you.

Your doctor can screen you for mental health conditions, such as major depression, postpartum depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. For some people, emergency evaluation may be needed. They can also determine whether you have any underlying medical condition that contributes to these thoughts. To do this, they can give you a physical exam or run bloodwork and other tests.

The sooner you contact your doctor, the sooner you can begin treatment to help.

Treatment for postpartum intrusive thoughts can include psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both.

UPMC Magee-Womens, through UPMC Western Psychiatric, offers behavioral health services for postpartum intrusive thoughts, including specially trained therapists and treatments for intrusive thoughts and OCD symptoms.

For more information about behavioral health services at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, including care for postpartum intrusive thoughts and postpartum depression, call 412-641-1238.

For more information about mental health services at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital, call 1-877-624-4100 or 412-624-1000.

If you live in Allegheny County and need immediate mental health care, call resolve Crisis Services at 1-888-796-8226.

Sources

Collardeau et al. BMC Psychiatry. 2019. Maternal unwanted and intrusive thoughts of infant-related harm, obsessivecompulsive disorder and depression in the perinatal period: study protocol. Link.

About UPMC Western Behavioral Health

UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. UPMC Western Psychiatric is the hub of UPMC Western Behavioral Health, a network of nearly 60 community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors throughout western Pennsylvania.

About UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital

For more than a century, UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital has provided high-quality medical care to women at all stages of life. UPMC Magee is long renowned for its services to women and babies, but also offers a wide range of care to men as well. Nearly 10,000 babies are born each year at Magee, and the hospital’s NICU is one of the largest in the country. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recognizes Magee as a National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health, and the Magee-Womens Research Institute is the largest research institute in the U.S. devoted exclusively to women’s health and reproductive biology.