This guide to managing intrusive thoughts postpartum has been put together in collaboration with healthcare professionals. However, if you’re struggling with your postnatal mental health, please do contact your GP in the first instance.
Prior to having a baby, I underwent the usual pre-baby ‘training’: learning how to change a nappy, reading books on breastfeeding and educating myself on baby sleep. What no one mentioned, however, was how to prepare for the unexpected postpartum thoughts that would flood my sleep-deprived brain.
These intrusive postpartum thoughts took me completely by surprise and made me question whether or not I’d made a terrible mistake by having a baby.
Although I was fortunate enough to have a group of open and honest women around me, I noticed that the more negative and intrusive thoughts I was having were rarely discussed. This left me wondering if I was the only one experiencing them – which, of course, only made things worse.
Over the last 16 months, however, I’ve come to realise that the intrusive thoughts I experienced postpartum are incredibly common. Furthermore, they didn’t mean that I was a terrible Mum, but rather I was just a woman who was simply adapting to a huge life change.
To help reassure new Mums that intrusive thoughts postpartum are incredibly common, we’ve therefore interviewed Kat Martin, a Specialist Perinatal Occupational Therapist and Dr Eleanor Seddon, a Clinical Psychologist in Maternity and Neonatal Psychology Services.
We asked both of these brilliant ladies the questions that we wished we’d asked during those early, hazy days of motherhood. Below, we’ve put together a summary of their incredibly reassuring responses, in the hope that they are a comfort to anyone experiencing intrusive thoughts postpartum.
Additionally, we’ve also included a small round-up of the most common thoughts that women experience postpartum, which were shared by our community of mothers on Instagram.
Finally, having experienced intrusive thoughts postpartum myself, I’ve also added a few techniques that I used to manage them. These are simple yet effective techniques, that helped hugely in lessening the fear around intrusive thoughts and allowed me to see them for what they were: just thoughts, not facts.
An Interview with Maternal Mental Health Professionals
To help better understand postpartum intrusive thoughts, we asked two fantastic healthcare professionals for their answers to the following questions. Their replies were incredibly comforting and helped normalise the intrusive thoughts that so many of us new mums experience (or will experience).
Q: What are intrusive thoughts and how common are intrusive thoughts after a baby?
A: Kat (Perinatal Mental Health OT)
Intrusive thoughts are often described as thoughts, images or impulses that pop into our consciousness. They typically go against our values and can therefore feel extremely distressing.
Evidence suggests that:
- 100% of women have intrusive thoughts of accidentally hurting their babies (for example I’m going to fall down the stairs whilst carrying my baby)
- 50% of women have thoughts of deliberately harming their baby (for example dropping baby)
- 2% of women have frequent and recurring intrusive thoughts that impact their ability to function
It’s important to note that none of these types of thoughts mean you are at any risk of harming your baby. They do not equate to being a ‘bad’ Mum and nobody will take your baby away if you talk about experiencing these thoughts.
Common thoughts I have seen working in the Perinatal Mental Health Service:
- “If I ask for help, my baby is going to be taken away from me”
- “I really wanted a baby, but I’m finding this so difficult – what is wrong with me?”
- “I’m a bad Mum”
- “What if I accidentally hurt my baby?”
- “Why do I hate my partner?”
- “What if I deliberately hurt my baby?”
A: Eleanor (Clinical Psychologist)
Intrusive thoughts are involuntary thoughts that can occur out of the blue. They can be about distressing or worrying topics, such as causing harm to someone you care about. Intrusive thoughts or images are very common in the general population, but can be even more frequent after major life events and stressors when you may be feeling more anxious.
Many people experience anxiety, disgust and shame in response to intrusive thoughts, which can actually then make intrusive thoughts worse or occur more frequently, thus creating a vicious cycle of anxiety.
Intrusive thoughts and images are extremely common after having a baby. Your brain is hard-wired to notice and respond to anything that might put your baby in danger.
Intrusive thoughts frequently centre around scary images or thoughts of your baby coming to harm. This might include the new parent having images of intentionally harming their baby. Experiencing these thoughts can cause huge distress to parents. Other common topics of intrusive thoughts include contamination (e.g. “What if that bottle is dirty”, “What if they have coronavirus”); or environmental (“What if I left the oven on and burn the house down?”).
New parents describe a huge rollercoaster of intense emotions after having a baby. These can range from happiness, excitement and pride, to sadness, anxiety and anger.
Common thoughts many new parents discuss have centred around anxiety:
- “Is something wrong with my baby?”
- “Is my baby breathing?”
- “What if my baby dies?
- “Am I a bad parent?”
- “Am I doing this wrong?”
- “Are other people judging me?”
- “Was it the wrong decision to have a baby?”
- “Maybe I’m not cut out for this”
- “Other people seem to be doing a better job than me”
Q: How do you differentiate between harmless thoughts and thoughts that might be a sign of mental illness?
A: Kat (Perinatal Mental Health OT)
It’s important to highlight that all thoughts are ‘harmless’ – thoughts cannot harm us.
They can, however, cause lots of distress, which can then have a big impact on how we function in our daily activities and mothering roles.
If thoughts get in the way of completing our activities of daily living (including those we do with our babies), then it might be worth speaking to your local mental health provider, health visitor or GP for advice. A common example of this is:
Thought: “I’m going to accidentally assault my baby whilst changing their nappy”
Impact on function: Asking partner to complete all nappy changes and avoiding this task.
If you notice you’re avoiding tasks because of your thoughts, it might be that a short therapeutic intervention could be helpful.
A: Eleanor (Clinical Psychologist)
Intrusive thoughts are extremely common amongst the general population, with research suggesting they occur in 94% of the general population (Adam et al, 2014) and 100% of a population of new mothers (Fairbrother & Woody, 2008).
Intrusive thoughts do not suggest an actual intent to commit harm, but can cause significant distress. Consequently, the important differentiator of when to seek help is not necessarily the intrusive thought itself, but instead your distress or behaviour in response to the thought.
If you are noticing that these thoughts are having an impact on your mood or ability to function day-to-day, then it is a good idea to seek support from either your midwife, GP or health visitor, PANDAS and The Association for Postnatal Illness (APNI) are also great third sector organisations that can offer support.
Q: Do you have any words of comfort for new Mums surrounding postnatal intrusive thoughts?
A: Kat (Perinatal Mental Health OT)
Rather than thinking: ‘I am not enjoying this today, therefore I must be a bad mum’ try, ‘I am not enjoying this today and I am a good Mum’.
Both those things can exist at the same time.
A: Elenor (Clinical Psychologist)
I would completely normalise the experience of intrusive thoughts. Although they can be alarming and distressing, they are experienced by nearly all new parents (including myself)! Often, intrusive thoughts are simply reflective of how important and highly you are regarding your role as a new parent, which in itself is a sign of how much nurture and love you are showing to your new baby.
Equally, if you are struggling with your mood then there are supports available to help you with this and I would strongly encourage you to use them. Prioritising your mental wellbeing is one of the biggest gifts you can give to your child and will benefit you both in the long term. Supports are available via the NHS and third sector.
10 Most Common Postnatal Thoughts According to Our Community of Mothers
We asked our community of Mums on Instagram to share the thoughts that they had postpartum – and we were pretty surprised by the results. Scrolling through the responses, the same thoughts – which we presumed were rare or seen as taboo – were actually incredibly common.
Here are the top 10 most common intrusive postpartum thoughts that our community shared with us:
- ‘What have I done? I regret having a baby, I can’t do this’
- ‘I’m scared I’ll hurt my baby’
- ‘I don’t want anyone else to look after my baby, but I also want to be by myself’
- ‘I hate breastfeeding’
- ‘I feel like a failure for not breastfeeding’
- ‘I can hear my baby cry when I’m in the shower but she/he wasn’t crying’
- ‘I resent my husband/partner – I’m having to do so much more’
- ‘I love my baby so much it scares me’
- ‘How did I ever think I was tired before having a baby?’
- ‘How can something so small bring so much happiness?’
As you can see, a surprising amount of Mums experienced intrusive thoughts of varying degree, which involved their baby, their role as mothers and their relationship with their partners.
How I Managed My Own Intrusive Thoughts Postpartum
Having dealt with anxiety for many years, I was fortunate enough to understand that my thoughts weren’t necessarily facts.Although I found some of my thoughts scary and intrusive, I tried to approach them from a neutral standpoint.
If you’re experiencing intrusive postpartum thoughts, the below methods can be of huge benefit in helping to calm, manage and ultimately neutralise these horrible thoughts.
During the early days of motherhood, my brain felt like a tornado of thoughts; both intrusive and mundane. This left me feeling discombobulated and stuck inside my own head. What helped hugely with initially tackling my intrusive thoughts, however, was quietening my brain using a mindfulness app, such as Headspace.
Through guided meditation, apps such as Headspace encourage you to let your thoughts float past; a little like a car passing you by without actually getting inside it. Learning to watch your thoughts pass by, rather than ruminating on them, is incredibly effective in stopping them from getting too intense.
2. Labelling your thoughts
Once you have settled into meditation, it’s then useful to practice ‘noting’ or ‘labelling’ when it comes to your thoughts. This means that you can label a thought as an ‘unhelpful intrusive thought’, before letting it float past and out of your mind. This (hopefully) means over time that you can very quickly label a thought when it pops into your brain as intrusive, rather than giving it any weight or significance.
3.Acceptance of intrusive thoughts
Finally, one of the worst things we can do when experiencing postnatal intrusive thoughts is to try to run away from them or to battle with them. A little like trying not to think about food when you’re hungry, trying to stop intrusive thoughts, inevitably makes them worse.
Once you have labelled your thought, acknowledge and accept it before moving on with your day – you’ll be surprised how quickly they then fade and lose their potency.
Mental Health Postnatal Support (UK)
For those looking for more professional support in managing your perinatal or postnatal mental health (UK), the below charities and support networks are incredibly helpful: