When Postpartum Intrusive Thoughts Take Over

It’s no secret that the postpartum period is tough: the sleep deprivation, the feeding schedule, the trying-to-keep-this-delicate-creature-alive… But nobody talks about the intrusive thoughts that make it even harder.

While postpartum depression and anxiety are common discussion points at doctor or midwife appointments during pregnancy, it’s rare for a care team to warn a woman about intrusive thoughts. Which means that when they start happening, they’re all the more shocking and horrifying, because we’re not prepared. Let’s change that right now.

What are intrusive thoughts?

The definition of ‘intrusive thoughts’ is pretty straightforward: they’re thoughts that are unwanted and unexpected, that seem to come out of nowhere. They aren’t always thoughts in the sense of an internal monologue – sometimes they’re mental images, imagined actions, or repetitive fears that seem to pop into your head at random times.

Examples of intrusive thoughts

For postpartum women, these scary thoughts are often about harm our children will encounter, either by accident or even intentionally at our own hands. This might look like:

  • A mental image of intentionally slamming your baby’s head into the wall of their crib as you lower them in for a nap
  • A flash of your baby falling out of your arms while you’re on a balcony or other high place
  • A persistent “what if?” question in a precarious situation, such as “what if she drowns?” or “what if I hold his head under the water?” while giving your baby a bath
  • A constant, nagging fear that you’re not doing enough, or that you’ll never be a good enough mom
  • A disproportionate fear of household dangers, like kitchen knives or stairs

Where do these thoughts come from?

In most cases, intrusive thoughts are a symptom of stress or anxiety (or, in rare cases, obsessive-compulsive disorder). In the time after giving birth you’re especially likely to be on edge – it’s only natural. Because your new baby is so vulnerable, your brain is on high alert for signs of potential danger.

While it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, this hypervigilance can cause more harm than good in our modern, fairly safe lives. The constant processing of which situations are threatening and which aren’t can leave your brain open to excessive anxiety and intrusive thoughts.

You’re not the only one

It’s important to know that if you’ve been experiencing these thoughts, you’re not alone. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, around six million Americans experience intrusive thoughts – when it comes to postpartum women, the numbers are even higher.

One study reported that at least 70% of new moms experience intrusive thoughts, and 50% of moms have thoughts of harming their baby. That means that most of us have been where you are.

Tips for handling intrusive thoughts

The first and most important thing to do when it comes to fighting these scary thoughts is to remind yourself that they don’t represent your real thoughts, feelings, or desires. If you’re having thoughts of harming your baby, this is especially important – your horrified reaction is the real you, not the unwanted thought.

Here are some other ways to manage intrusive thoughts:

  1. Label them appropriately: intrusive thoughts. Calling intrusive thoughts by their proper name will help you mentally distinguish them from your real thoughts and feelings, which will help with the next step.
  2. Practice accepting and letting go of the thoughts when they come to you. This can be so hard, but the more you fight against the thought, the deeper into your brain it burrows. Think of it like a wasp – instead of swatting at it and risking a sting, hold still and let it pass.
  3. Don’t change your behavior in response to the thoughts. This one is super important. It might seem like a sensible response to adjust your behavior to avoid triggers – never using a knife when your baby is close by, or having your partner take care of bathtime. But responding to intrusive thoughts this way tells your brain that they should be listened to, giving them authority, and the more you listen, the more they’ll keep coming back.

Intrusive thoughts can be a very stressful part of motherhood, especially because we aren’t educated on them ahead of time, so they’re unexpected. But they aren’t real – although they can feel extremely real in the moment – and they are manageable.

If you’d like some help managing your unwanted thoughts, or any other postpartum stressor, we can help! At Prospera, our mental health coaches are trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques, which have been shown to be extremely effective for intrusive thoughts – so you can feel better, faster.

So if you could use a little extra emotional support (and honestly, what mom couldn’t?), why not give us a try? Book your free consultation today.

Content reviewed by Dr. Andrea Niles, Clinical Psychologist

Anne Godenham is a writer and editor with a passion for mental health awareness and accessibility