Intrusive Thoughts: What they are and tips to manage them

Unwanted, intrusive thoughts are really common after we have a baby so we’ve invited Perinatal Clinical Psychologist & author, Dr Caroline Boyd, to share guidance with us on what they are and tips on how to manage them.

We hope the information Dr Boyd shares is helpful and reassuring – please always reach out to your GP or medical professional if you are in need of any support with this or any other issues.

Trigger warningthe information below contains details of unwanted intrusive thoughts of harm coming to the baby. Please take care when reading.

What are intrusive thoughts?

“What if I drop my baby? What if my baby stops breathing? What if my baby slips in the bath and drowns?”

Unwanted, intrusive worries of harm coming to our baby are really common – especially in early motherhood when our threat system is on high alert.

These attention-grabbing, anxiety-driven thoughts include word thoughts (such as “What if my baby stops breathing?”), vivid images (e.g. a mental picture of the baby rolling off the changing mat), and impulses or urges (a sudden impulse to throw the baby). Broadly, there are two categories of unwanted, infant-related harm thoughts. One is accidentally harming a child, reported by nearly every single woman in my study and larger studies (Boyd & Gannon, 2019). Examples include an image of the baby suffocating, or falling or being dropped.

The second type are thoughts of intentional harm – reported by 1 in 2 women. Examples of unwanted intentional harm thoughts include screaming at the baby, or impulses to shake or throw the baby. These harm thoughts can pop into a mother’s mind unexpectedly and evoke horror – even though she would never deliberately hurt her baby.

Women often feel intense shame, guilt or horror when they have these thoughts – which means they don’t talk about them. Shame keeps us from sharing our thoughts which can be experienced as frightening and paralysing. The very fact mums feel ashamed or horrified about having these thoughts is a strong sign that they’re not going to hurt the baby. These thoughts tend not to sit comfortably with the woman – meaning that they’re not indicative of risk in themselves. Research to date shows that experiencing these unwanted thoughts makes you no more likely to deliberately hurt your baby than any other parent.

Why else don’t mums talk about their thoughts? My research and clinical experience shows that many women believe that they’re a sign that they’re a ‘bad’ mum. It’s the meaning mums draw from their thoughts and visions that gives them power. None of the women I interviewed in my published study shared their harm thoughts with a health professional, due to fears of being judged an unfit mother or having their baby taken away.

This is what I call the policing effect of aspiring to be “Supermum”. It relates to Western-centric myths of motherhood – the Supermum myth – promoting the idealised mother as ‘natural’, blissed-out and forever fulfilled. This toxic myth gets internalised, leading to mums believing that they must prove to themselves and others that they’re always calm, coping and in control.  Of course, when we experience the messy reality of having a baby, we discover how living up to this ideal is impossible, and it sets women up to fail.

So what helps?

3 tips for managing your unwanted intrusive thoughts:

  • Understand why they occur in early motherhood.

Mums can experience these kinds of thoughts as part of the adjustment to having a baby – a way of adapting to the huge responsibility. Unwanted, intrusive thoughts about our babies made the women I interviewed more conscious of their power in contrast to their baby’s acute vulnerability. This means these thoughts can be understood as an adaptive response – helping mums figure out what’s morally acceptable, and what’s not. A bit like an ‘effective warning system’ (Stadlen, 2004).

  • Talking really helps.

Talking about your intrusive thoughts can bring huge relief, and will help you make sense of them. Try taking a small risk and talk to a trusted friend or partner. When women can talk about their intrusive thoughts, and feel validated (a friend may well have similar experiences given how common these thoughts are), they realise they’re not a bad mum, and feel less alone.

  • Practising mindfulness skills to help you notice your thoughts – and let them go.

What’s most important for helping you manage these unpleasant thoughts is about how you respond in the moment. Unfortunately, the more we fight or struggle against our thoughts, the more they grow in power and intensity. So try practising mindfulness skills to help you separate from your thoughts – helping to disempower them.

Next time you experience an unwanted thought of harm about your baby, try telling yourself gently: “Hello there harm thought. You’re simply a thought. This experience doesn’t mean anything bad about me. I’m a good enough mum and I am safe.” This practice of noticing your thoughts, acknowledging them with kindness and then letting them go allows you to step back from your thoughts – giving you more space to respond rather than react.

If you’re struggling with your intrusive thoughts, please talk to a trusted health professional, such as your GP, regarding an NHS referral to a psychology service if appropriate. You can also access private talking therapy (e.g. www.bacp.co.uk/search/Therapists). If you have an overwhelming sense of wanting to hurt yourself or your baby, please seek help immediately. Visit A&E ; call 999, make an on-the-day GP appt or call the Samaritans on 116 123. These are details for our readers in the United Kingdom, please seek out local support if you are based elsewhere in the world.

For more info, please see Caroline’s Instagram page @_drboyd

Caroline’s new book, Mindful New Mum: A Mind-Body Approach to the Highs and Lows of Motherhood, is available for pre-order click here to order.

Mindful New Mum is written as an antidote to all the parenting manuals prescribing a “right” way to mother – offering holistic care with a focus on mindful compassion, evidence-based psychology ideas, meditations & visualisations plus nutritional advice, natural remedies, baby massage & yoga.

Clinical psychologist Dr Caroline Boyd has an MA in classics, an MSc in psychology, and a doctorate in clinical psychology. She has over 10 years’ experience working in the NHS and mental health settings, and specializes in supporting new parents in her independent psychology practice, Parent Therapy Hub.

Caroline works with parents around all aspects of the transition – from pregnancy to childbirth and beyond. She adopts a holistic approach to wellbeing, and her published research explores mothers’ experiences of intrusive thoughts about their babies.

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