Why New Moms Have Intrusive Thoughts

Majority of new parents have scary thoughts about something terrible happening to their baby. A psychotherapist explains why this happens and when you should be worried.

Postpartum Stress Center photo
Photo: Molly McIntyre

It's a familiar scenario for many new parents: it's the middle of the night, and you've just fed the baby, but you can't fall back to sleep, because you're worried the baby might stop breathing. Parenting classes taught you the basics of newborn baby care, but didn't teach you how to alleviate your new mommy jitters.

Caring for a newborn baby is an enormous responsibility filled with emotional highs and lows. During this vulnerable transition, it's common to worry about the baby's health and well-being. For many mothers, jarring thoughts, such as "What if I hurt the baby?" or "What if I drop my baby?" can catch them off guard. Without warning, these worries can arise, interrupting the joy of parenthood.

But while these thoughts are uncomfortable and unnerving, they are pretty common. "These are 'scary thoughts,'" says Karen Kleiman, LCSW, a psychotherapist specializing in maternal mental health.

Research show the majority of new parents experience some kind of intrusive infant-related thoughts. Stigma, shame, and social pressure are reasons many decide to conceal them. "Many mothers worry what other people will think if they open up about their struggles," says Kleiman, also the founder of The Postpartum Stress Center in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, which treats women with prenatal and postpartum mood and anxiety disorders.

Whether it's fear about being a bad mother or hurting the baby, learning why intrusive thoughts may occur, what they mean, and how to cope with them can dismantle shame and allow mothers to reach out for additional support. Kleiman, who helps moms navigate intrusive thoughts in her new book Good Moms Have Scary Thoughts: A Healing Guide to the Secret Fears of New Mothers, breaks it all down.

What causes intrusive thoughts?

Mental health professionals and physicians aren't entirely sure why some women experience more intrusive thoughts than others. What they do know, however, is that women with a personal or family history of anxiety may be more likely to experience scary thoughts.

Hormonal, psychological, and environmental stressors play a big role, says Kleiman, as do the increased demands of motherhood. "New mothers are hard-wired to respond to any hint of infant distress, and to protect their babies from harm," adds Kleiman.

This heightened state pushes the nervous system into overdrive, activating the body's "fight or flight" response, making women more prone to anxiety, she explains.

How to cope with intrusive thoughts

Acknowledging intrusive thoughts can go a long way. "When fears aren't addressed, they grow, which is why it's crucial for moms to know that it's OK to experience scary thoughts," Kleiman says.

Emotional validation can also foster acceptance, which can decrease anxiety. "One of the best ways for women to gain control over these thoughts is to understand that they are anxiety-driven, and nothing bad is going to occur, even though it can cause high distress," says Kleiman.

Specific strategies can also help. Research suggests mindfulness meditation can decrease a new mother's parenting fears and reduce her anxiety by helping her anchor into the present moment. Exercise, such as yoga, is also beneficial. Finding a trusted friend, family member, or a therapist to talk to can be supportive and help mothers feel less alone.

Are intrusive thoughts a sign of something more serious?

Unlike scary thoughts that come and go, perinatal mood concerns tend to interfere with a mother's normal functioning. "The key determining factor is the degree to which a mother is suffering," says Kleiman.

Symptoms to look out for include: appetite and sleep changes, physical discomfort, feelings of guilt and sadness, and in rare instances, thoughts of self-harm.

If a mother is bothered by her intrusive thoughts, reaching out to a healthcare professional can be helpful. Physicians and mental health professionals can screen Mom for a postpartum mood disorder, such as postpartum depression, which affects one in seven women. If a diagnosis is given, additional support such as psychotherapy, group support, and medication (when needed) may be recommended.

Whatever support a mother receives, it's vital to find an empathic community. This is why Kleiman launched the #speakthesecret campaign, enlisting the help of illustrator Molly McIntyre to create comics portraying the emotional struggles mothers face.

She hopes the campaign and her new book spark an honest and open conversation about the myriad emotions mothers come up against.

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