Intrusive thoughts: the dark side of new motherhood

It started when T was 5 weeks old.

I’d read and heard other mum’s say that they could recognise their babies’ different cries. Well my baby was 5 weeks old and I still had to work my way through hungry? nappy? hot? cold? etc. to figure out what was wrong when T was crying. Surely I should have some sort of instinct and recognise his cries, or was I already failing at being a mother?

This was compounded by what happened when I met up for coffee with a friend who has two children (and is also a children’s nurse). T’s cries were escalating and I could feel the eyes of everyone in the cafe on me. I desperately tried to shove my boob in his mouth while wanting the ground to swallow me up. He didn’t seem to want to latch but I kept trying.

Then my friend took him off me and jiggled him. Within moments he was peaceful in her arms. Looking back, I know my friend could see my discomfort and her experience with children meant she knew exactly what to do to help. At the time I saw it as a huge criticism of my parenting and could feel tears pricking my eyes.

After this things escalated. I was feeling very low and started having what I now know are called ‘intrusive thoughts’. I remember vividly the first time it happened. T was crying for ages one night while I tried to get him to sleep. Suddenly a thought appeared from nowhere, why don’t you throw him down the stairs?

This terrified me. I loved that baby boy so much, how could I possibly think such an awful thing? The more I tried to get the thought out of my mind, the stronger it got. Eventually he went to sleep and I sat and cried.

I continued to have intrusive thoughts. Some were of accidentally hurting him. I imagined car accidents. I thought about letting go of the pram while out walking and it rolling in front of a car. I imagined myself falling down the stairs and being killed and T crying for hours until S came home to find us.

But worse were the thoughts of intentionally hurting him. They were the ones that haunted me. I knew I would never, ever hurt my precious little boy, so why did I keep thinking about it? Obviously I couldn’t tell anyone or they would take my baby away.

I felt like a terrible mother. I would cry and cry. I remember sitting on the sofa crying because I was such an awful mother and feeling horribly guilty for not interacting with my baby. Which then made me feel worse and I cried some more. I lied at my 6 week check up when they asked me screening questions for post-natal depression.

After a couple of weeks of feeling like this, I realised that my feelings were spiralling out of control. I needed to do something about this and started challenging my negative thoughts and beliefs as they arose. I realised that thinking awful thoughts is not the same as acting on them. I began to understand that the thoughts were borne out of sleep deprivation and the extreme pressure I was feeling to be a good mum. I started to interact with T more. I started to enjoy my son and the intrusive thoughts came less frequently.

I don’t believe that I had post-natal depression because it only lasted a matter of weeks. However, I do believe that if I hadn’t managed to break the cycle of negative beliefs, it could have taken me much longer to feel better. I blame the pressure that I felt to be a perfect mum fuelled by postnatal hormones for the dark thoughts and feelings.

A couple of months ago I was pretty sleep-deprived. T was teething and his sleep was awful. I found myself having intrusive thoughts again. This time I was in a less vulnerable state but was still frightened by them so I took to google to find out what they were. I discovered that everybody has them from time to time. Like when you see a train coming and think about throwing yourself under it. Or imagining what would happen if you veered into oncoming traffic. Thinking it isn’t the same as doing it.

I also found this study that assessed 100 women at 4 and 12 weeks postpartum. The researchers found that

“Postpartum intrusive thoughts of accidental harm to the infant were universal, and close to half of the sample reported unwanted thoughts of intentionally harming their infant.”

So nearly half of us have thought of intentionally hurting our babies, yet no one talks about it? I guess because it is such an awful thing to admit, no one wants to say anything. But it’s so common! I would have felt so much better if I’d known that these thoughts are normal.

Intrusive means ‘unwanted.’ You don’t want to have these thoughts and you have no control over them. Having intrusive thoughts is not the same as acting on them. It doesn’t make you a bad mum or a bad person.

Maybe new mums should be warned about them in antenatal classes, or they should be mentioned in baby books. Midwives and health visitors could talk to women about them so it’s not so terrifying and upsetting if it happens to you.

I worry about how I will feel if we’re lucky enough to have baby number two. But I think being prepared will be half the battle. I don’t expect to be able to figure out exactly why my baby’s crying when they’re still brand new. I won’t put so much pressure on myself or worry about what the books or other mums say. I know that intrusive thoughts are normal. I know sleep deprivation affects my mental health. I know that my husband would understand and would help me if I started to spiral into a dark place again, if only I would let him in. Maybe things will be better next time.

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19 thoughts on “Intrusive thoughts: the dark side of new motherhood

  1. Laura's Lovely Blog

    What a brave post. My daughter had silent reflux and for weeks I averaged 3 hours a night. I actually felt like I was going insane I didn’t necessarily have intrusive thought but I wanted to scream & shout at her – so maybe I did. I remember one day after dropping my son at pre-school sitting it Tescos car park & just sobbing. Sleep deprivation can break you – but as you have shown you can come out the other side xxx

    Reply
    • Helen Post author

      Sleep deprivation really can break you, it’s truly awful. I definitely had times where I wanted to shout at T, in fact I did shout at him when he was about 8 months old and was still waking up every 2 hours every night. The image of you sitting in the car park crying is so sad, I really wish someone could have given you a hug at that moment and told you that everything was going to be ok xxx

      Reply
  2. Clare

    Helen, what an AMAZING post! This needs exposure! I have never heard of this before but I have previously had some quite crazy thoughts in my head that I have just forced away. If I haven’t heard of it then who else hasn’t?! And how many people have experienced this and been scared to death by what they are thinking! Such a thought provoking post! Well done and thank you for highlighting this issue xx
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    • Helen

      Thank you for your lovely comment, Clare! I had never heard of it until I googled it a few months ago, it was so frightening thinking I was the only person who was having these thoughts. Xx

      Reply
  3. Sarah HP

    Hi Helen – thank you so much for posting this. I know that it will not have been an easy post to right but is so important that we are open about these things. I struggled after my daughter was born. I literally felt terrified of her and just utterly hopeless – everything sent me into spirals of negative thoughts thinking that the slightest thing was going to hurt her or worse. I felt like I was almost possessed by another really irrational stranger with these awful thoughts. I really thought I was having some kind of breakdown and I was terrified of opening up to my husband. I live near to a railway line and I remember sitting very calmly planning how I would jump in front of a train if I ever did anything due to incompetence that hurt my little girl. It was a brief but a very dark moment (for less than 2 weeks after my daughter was born). I think it came from a place of fear and I just put too much pressure on myself. Interestingly my experience second time around was very different. Having twins was practically much harder but I was so much more confident in the decisions that I was making and my ability to get through the early days. I also had completely realistic expectations of what I would be able to do plus I had much more help from friends and family. I agree with you that antenatal classes and baby books should be a bit more open and honest about what to expect emotionally after giving birth especially with your first child.
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    • Helen

      Thanks so much for sharing your story, lovely. I had tears in my eyes reading it, and I could really relate to so much that you were saying. I found what you said about how you found it second time around really reassuring. I’m worried that the same thing will happen next time, but part of me thinks that I’ll have much more realistic expectations and won’t put so much pressure on myself.

      Reply
    • Helen

      Thanks Rachel. I can understand why people wouldn’t want to talk about it, but for me one the most upsetting aspects was feeling sure that I was the only person who had these horrible thoughts. It would be great if there was more awareness.

      Reply
  4. A Moment with Franca

    Wow Helen what a great post!! I haven’t heard of these type of thoughts before but I clearly remember being very vulnerable when having my first daughter and really sad all the time. I was more afraid that something will happen to her and my dreams or maybe more like nightmares where about finding her dead. I was worried 24 hrs and checking on her all the time. I think when you are a first time parent you seem to fear a lot and it is true that you put so much pressure on yourself. The lack of sleep has a huge impact on us. You are right that there should be more talks about these problems and people should be honest about their feelings. Thanks so much for sharing this to us!! 🙂 xxx

    Reply
    • Helen Post author

      Thank you, Franca! I think it can be such a vulnerable time, especially with your first, it’s hardly surprising people can have such a difficult time emotionally. Xxx

      Reply
  5. Mummymelton

    Such a fantastic post, it must have been hard to write. Like the research says I think alot of mums experience this but noone talks about it as I think people worry they will be judged a bad parent or have their child “taken away”. I think you’re right that new parents need to be aware of this, to know that it is possible & what support is available xx
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    Reply
    • Helen Post author

      That’s definitely what I worried about. I couldn’t tell anyone about it because they would think that T was at risk. I knew I would never hurt him, but how could anyone else be so sure?

      Reply
  6. Gemma @ Confessions of a Nagging Mother

    A very brave post to write lovely, I want to send you huge hugs.

    Like you say, it is normal, I have had those thoughts in thr past but no one talks about them ever! So when we have these thoughts we think that there is somethig terribly wrong with us.

    It is horrible to go through. I don’t know why we do but talking about it will be a huge benefit to everyone. Sometimes we need to know that some things are normal.

    Gemma xx
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    • Helen Post author

      Thanks so much, Gemma. It really does make you feel like there’s something wrong with you, doesn’t it? I think we need to break the taboo and be more honest about how we feel without fear of being judged. Xx

      Reply
  7. Azaria

    I could easily have written this myself. I thought I was the only one. Thank you so much for being so open. I’m actually in tears thinking about the thoughts I would have, I truly thought I was alone in that. I never spoke about it,not even with my husband. It’s quite a relief that I’m not alone.

    Azaria.
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    • Helen Post author

      Oh bless you, Azaria. I wish I could give you a hug. It really is such an awful thing to experience, made even worse because you feel like you’re the only person who’s having these thoughts. I never even told my husband about these thoughts until I started writing this post. I’m so pleased it helped you. I was really nervous and nearly didn’t publish it, but knowing it has helped you makes me so glad I did 🙂

      Reply
  8. Mummy Lala (Laura)

    I suffered from lots of intrusive thoughts when Rowan was born, and I felt so horrible about it. I suffer from anxiety and panic disorder so I thought it was part of that and I was terrified it was PND. I think the sleep deprivation had a lot to answer for too. Turns out that a lot of mums have the same thoughts around the same time. I’m glad you’ve written this as I’ve always been afraid to talk about it to anyone. In fact this is the first time I’m actually admitting it to anyone else (my other half knows). Thanks for sharing your experience.x
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