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Is it OK for new parents to have difficult thoughts?

One of our Parent Champions reflects on having difficult thoughts as a new parent, and appeals for more openness about these experiences if we are to fully support parents.

After I had my first son I remember feeling like there were parts of my experience that I couldn’t talk about. When I met up with other new mums we’d discuss feeding, commiserate over our lack of sleep, and share horror stories about explosive nappy changes. We’d talk jokingly or intimately about our sore bodies and our wardrobes full of unworn, too tight clothes.

But despite these shared experiences, there were some topics that were off limits. We didn’t talk, for example, about feeling anxious or frightened. We didn’t discuss the fear that we were ‘getting it wrong’ or that we weren’t good enough. Nobody mentioned missing their old, pre-baby lives. Perhaps these topics – the really worrying, often painful ones – were too hard, or too socially unacceptable, to share with others. 

Yet we know that difficult and negative thoughts like these are common in new mothers.  One study from 2006 asked 156 new mothers about thoughts they had experienced and found that nearly 40% thought ‘having a baby is not fantastic like I expected’. A similar number reported feeling ‘trapped’.[1] Given that it’s not easy to share thoughts like this, it is quite possible these figures are underestimates. 

I read recently about how new parents frequently find themselves having unwanted, ‘intrusive’ thoughts of harming their baby. These are ideas, images or impulses of harm that appear suddenly, out of the blue, and are often very worrying to the parent. One study of 100 women, published in 2008, found that all the women they asked had thoughts of accidentally harming their baby in the 4 weeks after giving birth. Nearly half had unwanted, intrusive thoughts about deliberately causing harm, for example by shaking their baby.[2]

This experience is not unique to mothers. Another small study involving 42 fathers found that nearly a third had thoughts of harm.[3] The idea that parents think about harming their child is obviously worrying and may raise safeguarding concerns, but research has consistently found that having occasional thoughts like this does not increase the risk of parents being violent to their children.[4]

Instead, new mums and dads are often left with shame, guilt and anxiety about the images that appear, unbidden in their heads. Dr Caroline Boyd from Homerton University Hospital interviewed women about the experience of having unwanted harm thoughts. One of them recalled feeling like she could no longer trust herself.  She didn’t feel ‘like a good, normal person anymore’.[5]

The pressure to be a ‘good’ parent can feel intense, particularly when you are new to it.  Unsurprisingly this means that if new parents have difficult thoughts it can be very hard to share them. One mum told Dr Boyd that she didn’t let anyone know about her unwanted harm thoughts because ‘I thought they would worry for me, and whether I was OK with my baby’. Another said she couldn’t tell a health professional because ‘I think they’d start monitoring and watching me … my big worry would be that they’d take the baby away’.

The fear of being seen as unable to cope means parents often experience their difficult thoughts in isolation. This has worrying implications. Firstly, it means that parents who need help or professional support may not get it. Secondly, the silence creates a self-perpetuating trap. New parents experience difficult thoughts without knowing there are others experiencing the same and with no way of finding this out. They’re condemned to believing they are ‘abnormal’ and alone.

The only way to break this trap is to acknowledge the uncomfortable thoughts that parents have. Maybe one step is for health professionals to talk with new mums and dads about what we know of the difficult thoughts that are common amongst parents. Perhaps opening up the conversation like this would give parents permission to share their experiences. Of course no one wants to tell their darkest thoughts to everyone they meet but maybe, within trusted relationships, we could start to share our fears and our worries alongside our tales of sleep deprivation and nappy disasters.

Perhaps, then, we could recognise that having difficult thoughts as a new parent may not feel ‘good’ but it is completely normal. 

If you are a new parent and having difficult thoughts, we would recommend that you speak to your GP, midwife or health visitor. To find out more information on maternal mental health, check out the Maternal Mental Health Alliance website and you can enter your postcode to find local support too.

[1] Hall, P.L. & Wittkowski, A. (2006). An Exploration of Negative Thoughts as a Normal Phenomenon After Childbirth. Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health, 51, 321–330.

[2] Fairbrother, N. & Woody, S.R. (2008).  New mothers’ thoughts of harm related to the newborn. Arch Womens Ment Health, 11221–229.

[3] Abramowitz, J. S., Khandker, M., Nelson, C. A., Deacon, B. J., & Rygwall, R. (2006). The role of cognitive factors in the pathogenesis of obsessive-compulsive symptoms: A prospective study. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44(9), 1361–1374.

[4] Brok, E. C., Lok, P., Oosterbaan, D. B., Schene, A. H., Tendolkar, I., & van Eijndhoven, P. F. (2017). Infant-related intrusive thoughts of harm in the postpartum period: A critical review. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 78(8), e913–e923.

[5] Boyd, C.F.S & Gannon, K. (2019). How do new/recent mothers experience unwanted harm thoughts related to their newborn? A thematic analysis. Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology. DOI: 10.1080/02646838.2019.1657819