“How did they let me leave the hospital with this brand-new baby? How will I keep him alive?” This is a common refrain voiced by new parents in the first few days after their baby is born. After all, there’s a steep learning curve to feeding and diapering a newborn, getting enough sleep and adjusting to a new normal. Unfortunately, a large number of new parents (mothers and fathers) also experience intense anxiety that something bad will happen to their baby. We just don’t talk about it.
Disturbing thoughts don’t mean you’re crazy
For some, this distressing fear is experienced as unwanted images or thoughts. They’re scary, uncontrollable and feel like they’re playing on a loop in the parent’s mind. The thoughts are disturbing and can include someone — maybe even the parents themselves -- harming the baby.
Parents I see at the Swedish Center for Perinatal Bonding & Support sometimes share these scary thoughts with me. Their first questions are, “I would never do anything to hurt my baby! Why am I thinking these things?” and “Am I going crazy?”
In fact, these thoughts are symptoms of anxiety, depression or obsessive compulsive disorder, which can occur during and after pregnancy. By themselves, these thoughts don’t mean a parent will do anything to harm a baby.
Maternity-related anxiety is common and treatable
Talking about intrusive thoughts, anxiety and depression is hard. Women feel ashamed and worried that if they disclose their symptoms, someone’s going to take their baby away or think they aren’t good mothers. While postpartum depression has received media attention, ongoing silence around intrusive thoughts contributes to ongoing stigma and feelings of isolation for new parents.Nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 10 men experience depression or anxiety after the birth of a baby. For many of the women, their symptoms started in pregnancy. Anyone can experience these symptoms, but factors that increase a woman’s risk include:
- A personal or family history of a mood or anxiety disorder
- Complications during the pregnancy or birth
- Financial or relationship stress
- A history of infertility, miscarriage or loss of a pregnancy or child
- Poverty and experiences of racism or discrimination
Mindfulness, bonding and support
We also know there are ways to help new parents feel better and decrease intrusive thoughts, anxiety and depression. Therapy, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy, and medications are frontline treatments.At the Center for Perinatal Bonding and Support, we have found that we can help new mothers start to feel like themselves again by:
- Teaching them coping skills and mindfulness strategies
- Enhancing bonding and attachment with their babies
- Bolstering their support system
- Addressing transitions they may face in their relationships and their sense of identity
Asking for help is a sign of strength. And getting help can improve parents’ emotional health and benefit the whole family, including a baby’s cognitive, emotional and behavioral development.
How to get helpIf you are or know a new parent who is struggling with scary thoughts, anxiety or depression, please reach out. Talk to your doctor, midwife or pediatrician. Or, contact the Center for Perinatal Bonding and Support. We will help you determine which of our services might best fit your situation. We offer:
- Outpatient therapy. Our licensed clinical social workers have advanced training in evaluating and treating perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, and in strengthening attachments.
- Reproductive psychiatrists. These doctors specialize in evaluation and medication management of anxiety and depression during pregnancy and the postpartum period.
- The Day Program. We offer more intensive support -- 20 hours a week for up to three weeks for women who meet eligibility criteria. Women attend with their not-yet-crawling babies and participate in group therapy. These sessions are devoted to cognitive behavioral therapy, bonding, mindfulness, relationships and learning coping skills.
Remember, it’s common to be nervous after taking your baby home, but don’t be afraid to reach out for help if you don’t feel like yourself. If you experience anxiety, scary thoughts or other emotional complications that make it hard to sleep, take care of yourself, bond with your baby, or connect with others in your life, please tell someone. You can feel better with help.
Symptoms that require urgent attention
If thinking about hurting yourself or your baby makes you feel comforted rather than distressed; you feel urges to act on these thoughts; or you or a family member has serious concerns about safety for you or your baby, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. These are symptoms of a more serious condition, and they require urgent attention.