A Complete Guide To Intrusive Thoughts In New Parents

Are you a new parent who has thoughts of not being able to properly care for your baby? Then this guide on intrusive thoughts is for you!

by Laura Onstot | Laura Onstot, registered nurse and mom of 2 young kids, rarely pees alone, only frequents restaurants with Kraft Mac N Cheese, and blogs at Nomad’s Land. In her spare time, she can be found sleeping on the couch while she lets her kids watch endless episodes of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Her parenting advice is questionable, but at least she’s honest.

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In conversation with a new mother, she shared her husband was worried that while rocking their baby to sleep, he might give cause shaken baby syndrome.

We laughed. It sounded funny, but I knew this fear.

It brought me back to the days of new motherhood–the fear, the anxiety, and the uncertainty that saturated my being.

The days and nights blended; a great amalgam of sleeplessness. And with that sleeplessness came fear. While feeding our baby at 3 am, I worried my baby would stop breathing, that I would fall asleep on her and smother her to death, that the swaddle wasn’t on right, that her uneven breathing was a sign of an undiagnosed medical condition, and that I would drop her while carrying her.

But the worst fear I had, plagued me in the daylight.

It started one day as I was washing pump parts. My eyes rested on the knife block on our counter, and a horrible thought crossed my mind: what if I stabbed our baby? As soon as the thought surfaced, I panicked. Could I really stab our baby? I looked at her, and then at the knives.

An icy pit filled my stomach. I remembered learning about postpartum psychosis in nursing school–the terrifying stories of moms who put their babies in the oven or drowned them in the bathtub. Was I one of them?

I called my husband at work and begged him to come home. What if I did something baffling? This thought confirmed what I had always feared: that I was a horrible mom.

Five years and another kid later, I started seeing a therapist. My presenting problem? I was convinced I was a bad mom. We talked about the doubt and insecurities of parenthood, and about how I viewed myself as never quite enough. Upon further discussion, I told her about the knives.

My therapist asked if I had heard of intrusive thoughts. I hadn’t. She recommended that I read the book, “Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts,” by Sally Winston & Martin Seif.

Winston and Seif define intrusive thoughts as “uninvited thoughts that jump into the mind and do not seem to be part of the ongoing flow of intentional thinking.” Intrusive thoughts are often disturbing, and because of this, they can get “stuck” with the same thought continually surfacing. Some examples of intrusive thoughts would be: I could swerve my car and drive into oncoming traffic, or I wonder if I could drown my baby.

When I started reading the book, I realized that the thoughts I experienced were normal. According to a study published in 2014, 94% of people reported experiencing intrusive thoughts. The book gave me a language–a vocabulary to understand what I had been through. Here, I thought I was on an island alone- that I should be locked up and kept far away from my children. But instead, I learned that I had a normal experience, and just needed tools to face the thoughts.

Though they can be distressing, Winston and Seif explain that intrusive thoughts are not indicative of what you are going to do; instead, they indicate what you fear the most or are most morally opposed to. For example, new parents, who are responsible for the survival of their child, all of a sudden might have intrusive thoughts about harming children or dropping babies. 

Intrusive thoughts are common, but how we react to them is important.  While some people can brush these thoughts off, others get caught in them, trying to push them away. But the more they try to push them away, the more they’re bothered by them.

Winston and Seif recommend addressing intrusive thoughts through a series of steps:

1.   Recognize: Recognize that you are having an intrusive thought, and verbalize to yourself what is happening. “I am having an intrusive thought, and I can tell it is intrusive because of how it feels.”

2.  Just thoughts: Remind yourself that it is just a thought and should be left alone.

3.  Accept and allow: Don’t try to push the thoughts away–allow them to be. “Your job is not to distract, not to engage, and not to reason away.” (pg. 118) Observe the thoughts rather than engage with them.

4.  Float and feel: Allow the feelings to stay, and float above to observe. Make sure your thoughts are staying in the present moment–on what is happening, not what could happen. Stay away from worries over the future. Observe your thoughts with curiosity instead of judgment.               

5.  Let time pass: Don’t try to hurry through the thought–allow it to remain, however long it remains. 

6.  Proceed: Continue what you were doing before having the thought, even if the thought remains present. 

When we stop to argue with the thought, or reassure ourselves that we would never do it, or avoid the situation we fear, we give power to the thought. By allowing it to stay, and acknowledging it without becoming entangled with it, we give ourselves the power.

Because of the stressors surrounding pregnancy, birth, and new parenthood, intrusive thoughts are common among parents. A study of new parents led by Jonathan Abramowitz, Ph.D., showed that 90% of women and 88% of men reported experiencing “distressing intrusive thoughts” about their infant. Their thoughts were about almost any fear you could imagine: suffocation/ SIDS, accidents, intentional harm, losing the baby, illness, sexual thoughts, and contamination.

I reached out to Dr. Abramowitz over email to ask how he recommends that new parents deal with intrusive thoughts. He said, “The best thing for new parents to do is to keep this in mind–that most people experience intrusive thoughts–and psychologically “make room” for them when they show up. Don’t try to fight them, understand them, or seek reassurance… this will only make them more intense and give them power they don’t deserve.”

Dr. Abramowitz recommends that people seek help when “the thoughts are either causing a great deal of distress or if they find themselves avoiding situations or engaging in compulsive behaviors because of the thoughts.”

While intrusive thoughts are experienced by almost everyone, if they spiral out of control, they may be a sign of a mental health disorder.  If you or a loved one need help, you can visit the International OCD Foundation website for information and resources on intrusive thoughts. 

The knife block still sits on my counter. My kids are mostly healthy and happy, and though I still struggle with feelings of incompetence as a parent (don’t we all), the thoughts that once haunted me rarely come back to visit. But when they do, I go back to my list of six steps. I sit with the thoughts. I allow myself to feel whatever terror they invoke, and then I continue living.

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