Post Partum OCD: Unwanted thoughts of harming your child

What is postpartum OCD?

Postpartum OCD is one of those things that you don’t talk about, but it needs to be discussed to let you know that you are not a bad mother, nor are you a threat to your baby.

Unwanted thoughts of harming your infant are experienced by the majority of new parents, with half of the new mothers having intrusive thoughts of harming their child on purpose.(1)

This page is not just for mums. Fathers can experience alarming thoughts about their babies or children as well.

Many new mothers experience some very frightening and disturbing thoughts that they are going to harm their babies. These thoughts (and images) can fall under the following.

  • Intrusive violent, or aggressive thoughts towards your baby.
  • Thoughts of killing
  • Stabbing
  • Suffocating
  • Beating
  • or harming your baby in any way can pop into your head

According to research (2), unwanted thoughts of intentionally harming your child are common amongst postpartum mothers and fathers in response to their child crying.

10 Key Points About Postpartum OCD:

  1. Not unusual: Intrusive thoughts and anxieties affecting new parents are common, but postpartum OCD involves persistent, distressing obsessions that can be disturbing and unrelated to usual new parent worries.
  2. Themes can vary: While some focus on harm to baby or self, others involve excessive cleanliness, religious doubts, or intrusive sexual thoughts. These thoughts are not a reflection of your true character.
  3. Compulsions for relief: To manage anxiety, individuals with postpartum OCD might engage in mental or physical compulsions like frequent checking on the baby, excessive cleaning, or seeking constant reassurance.
  4. It’s treatable: Postpartum OCD is a recognized anxiety disorder and is highly treatable with evidence-based therapies like CBT and ERP. Remember, seeking help is a sign of strength.
  5. Professional support is crucial: Don’t suffer in silence. Seeking help from a therapist specializing in perinatal mental health and OCD is crucial for proper diagnosis, personalized treatment, and ongoing support.
  6. Self-care matters: Prioritize healthy habits like sleep, exercise, and relaxation techniques to boost your overall well-being and resilience against anxiety.
  7. You’re not alone: Postpartum OCD affects more new parents than you might think. Connecting with others who understand can offer valuable validation and support. Online communities and support groups can be helpful resources.
  8. Challenge the thoughts: With the help of a therapist, learn to challenge the validity and power of your intrusive thoughts. Remember, they are just thoughts, not reality.
  9. Focus on bonding: Despite the challenges, prioritize building a strong bond with your baby. Enjoying moments of connection and seeking support from a therapist can help overcome intrusive thoughts and anxieties.
  10. Hope for the future: Postpartum OCD is manageable. With dedication, support, and the right tools, you can reclaim your mental well-being and embrace this special time in your life. Focus on progress, not perfection, and remember, you are a good parent even if you have intrusive thoughts.
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Structured self-help course for Intrusive Thoughts from the privacy of your home

Dr Ryan: Psychologist and Founder of MoodSmith


Uncomfortable thoughts about your baby

This is highly distressing for you. You might even find it difficult to read this page. If you do, take heart that the fact that you find it distressing is a clear sign that you are not going to do anything to harm your baby. You are experiencing intrusive thoughts. You can read more about these thoughts here.

Sexualised thoughts often happen when your child is undressed, for example, when you are changing your baby, bathing them, dressing them or putting them to bed.

It can also occur in innocent situations, such as kissing your baby’s tummy or bottom.

Not only are you sick to your stomach that you thought such things (or saw such images in your head) in the first instance, you are now getting beaten by another stick – ‘what kind of disgusting person are you, for having these thoughts?’

You might be so frightened by what is happening to you that you no longer want to touch your child in case you touch him or her inappropriately, or worse, someone suspects that you are having these thoughts towards your child.

Things that used to delight you, such as bathing your child, are now something you try to avoid.

You may experience deep shame.

You are not alone in experiencing any of these things; you are not a threat to your child or a bad person. You are experiencing intrusive thoughts and images.

You might start to avoid things or do things differently

You might not want to be around other mums for fear that they might see right through you.

You might not want to change, touch or bathe your baby as you are terrified you are capable of doing something terrible.

If you have to change them, you might do this while looking away to avoid doing any harm.

If any of this is familiar to you, then the distress you are experiencing could well be intrusive thoughts or postpartum OCD.

The thoughts and images are what you obsess about in your head – and the compulsions are the changes in your behaviour, such as avoiding things or not looking at your baby when they are naked.

Treatment
Just reading about it is all the need to normalise what is happening for some people. If you need more help, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Mindfulness will help you make sense of what is happening to you and address the problem.
If you would like my help, you might want to take a look at the course I have on Intrusive Thoughts, and you can read about it here.

Sources
Collardeau, F., Corbyn, B., Abramowitz, J. et al. Maternal unwanted and intrusive thoughts of infant-related harm, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression in the perinatal period: study protocol. BMC Psychiatry 19, 94 (2019).
Fairbrother, N., Barr, R. G., Chen, M., Riar, S., Miller, E., Brant, R., & Ma, A. (2019). Prepartum and postpartum mothers’ and fathers’ unwanted, intrusive thoughts in response to infant crying. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 47(2), 129–147.

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