Intrusive Thoughts of Harm in Early Motherhood

What are these scary thoughts?

As a perinatal psychologist, one of the topics that frequently comes up in the therapy room is patients disclosing to me their experience of intrusive thoughts of harming their infants. Patients often feel confused, sometimes ashamed by this experience. Often, it’s in the context of overwhelming love and good feelings towards their new babies, and these thoughts don’t make sense. 

These thoughts are often experienced as frightening images – of imagining harm that might come to their baby such as accidents (e.g. falling off the change table, drowning in the bath) to thoughts of causing intentional harm (e.g. shaking the baby, letting go of the pram into traffic). In most cases these thoughts do not indicate intent to harm, and disclosure to your psychologist will not (as some new mother’s worry) result in your baby being taken away from you.

Incidence of intrusive thoughts of harm

These types of thoughts are incredibly common. The Centre of Perinatal Excellence (COPE) suggests that most mothers experience thoughts of accidentally harming their babies.  They also suggest that the incidence of intrusive thoughts of intentional harm is around 50% of all mothers.

It is understood that developmentally, human babies are born sooner than is ideal. However, our large brains and smaller pelvises dictate the timing of this, and human babies are very dependent creatures indeed. This level of dependency and vulnerability can evoke different feelings for new parents, including love, frustration, overwhelm- and sometimes all at once! 

Making sense of scary thoughts

Karen Kleiman has written a lovely book called “Good Moms have Scary Thoughts – A Healing Guide to the Secret Fears of New Mothers” that shares some common experiences and concerns that new mothers have. She writes that these scary thoughts are “empowered by your fearful reaction to them. It might be hard to believe that thoughts which reinforce your greatest fear – that you are not fit to be a mother- can coexist with feelings of extraordinary love, but they can” p107.

Women worry about what it might mean about them that they are having these thoughts. Helpful interventions include understanding that these thoughts are not uncommon and that you are not alone.  It is also important to try not to engage with them or ascribe meaning to them, and to understand that they generally occur when we are anxious. Therefore, managing anxiety is a helpful, even necessary step, and a perinatal clinical psychologist can help you.

Seeking support

If these thoughts are very frequent and distressing to you, it would be helpful to seek support. All parents feel anxious at times, perinatal psychologists can help when anxiety associated with becoming a new parent feels overwhelming.

To make an appointment with a perinatal psychologist at the Centre for Clinical Psychology, you can contact our friendly admin team on 03 9077 0122 or book online  

We understand that all parents are trying their best.

Image credit: Molly McIntyre (instagram is “brooklyn_rabbit”) from the book “Good Mums Have Scary Thoughts – A Healing Guide to the Secret Fears of New Mothers” by Karen Kleiman, illustrations by Molly McIntyre. 2019. Published by Familius LLC.