Almost all parents worry about the health and safety of their newborn children. In fact, we're evolutionarily programmed to scan our environments for any potential threat to the little life we are now charged with preserving. You might worry that your child will stop breathing in the night. That a car might leap onto the footpath and mow down you and your stroller. Or, even, that you could do something to harm your new baby, like drown her during those awkward newborn sponge baths.
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This is not because you plan to do any of these things. Nor it is because these things are going to happen. It's because "our brains are creative, and we wonder whether we could do certain things or whether certain things could happen," says Dr. Jonathan Abramowitz, an expert on what are called intrusive thoughts.
As parents of newborns we are on the look-out for any possible danger, and, yes, that could be ourselves. But there are times when these worries take hold of you, becoming debilitating and a sign of a possible anxiety disorder. Here's our guide to managing these thoughts and knowing when you might need help to do so.
Accept the Thoughts for What They Are
First, understand that these thoughts are normal and not an indictment of who you are as a parent. Then, work on letting them "come along for the ride," recommends Abramowitz. Instead of trying hard not to imagine these scenarios (which will only make them stick around longer), acknowledge their existence, understand they are a normal part of new parenthood, and then keep going with your day.
The research shows that these kinds of thoughts come and go in new parenthood and often peak around six weeks and then begin to ease in the following months.
Talk About Them With Another Parent or Someone Else You Trust
I'll start. After the births of both of my daughters, I had irrational worries about their health. When my older daughter had a benign bug bite on her hand, I seriously wondered if it might be cancer. I even asked her pediatrician if it might be cancer. After my second daughter was born at the robust weight of 4kg, 453.59g, I immediately pondered whether the almond croissants I had eaten with disturbing regularity during pregnancy had doomed her to a lifetime of diabetes. OK, your turn.
By sharing these thoughts with one another, we can take their power away. And learn that, hey, we're not alone. Other parents think weird stuff too! They're just like us! Two great, compassionate online groups where you can let your worries hang out are The Self-Care Squad (just for mums) and One Bad Mother (for all parents).
Know When Your Worry Is a Sign of an Anxiety Disorder
If you feel better just learning that these kinds of thoughts are normal, and they begin to dissipate as you grow more comfortable in your role as a parent to a new baby, great. If not — and these worries begin to take on a life of their own — it's possible you could be suffering from an anxiety disorder.
We used to talk about just postpartum depression, but experts now understand that there are a range of conditions — with different symptoms — that can develop during pregnancy or in the first year after birth called perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs). They are the most common complication of pregnancy and childbirth, affect as many as 1 in 5 mums, and are highly treatable. (Note: mood and anxiety disorders can also affect fathers).
We're going to talk about what two of them — postpartum anxiety and postpartum OCD — can look like.
You can't stop thinking these thoughts: Again, I'll go first. Those worries I mentioned above? Well, for me - someone who developed postpartum anxiety — they grew in number and force over time, until I spent most of my waking hours concocting elaborate stories in my head about the doomed health of my children (despite the fact that they were healthy and happy babies). Many women who experience postpartum anxiety (myself included) describe being so exhausted by the constant stream of worries that they want "out" of their heads.
Postnatal depression affects one in seven women, but it doesn't always manifest itself as sadness. It's true that many experience sorrow and bouts of crying for reasons they often can't explain, but there's actually a spectrum of symptoms and illnesses that fall under the umbrella of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.
You worry they mean you are not a good person or parent: If you begin to worry that a thought about possibly harming your child means you are a bad parent or that you should not have become a parent, it's a sign that these thoughts are having an outsized effect on you. Because, no, these thoughts are not about who you are. They are either a normal side effect of being a parent or a sign that you are experiencing an anxiety disorder, and have nothing to do with who you are as a person. If you are so disturbed by them that you begin to question that, it's time to get help.
You are having difficulty functioning normally: Maybe you are waking at 3 am, ruminating on these worries and can't fall back asleep (even though you're exhausted from having a new baby). Perhaps you're so preoccupied with your thoughts that engaging in normal conversation becomes difficult. Or you feel paralysed by your anxiety and it's difficult to go about your day-to-day life. All these things happened for me.
You are changing your behaviour to manage them: Are you checking on your child 20 times a night to make sure he is breathing? Or washing your hands repeatedly during the day? In my case, I Clorox-wiped every page of the board books my husband brought home from the library and repeatedly took my daughter's temperature when she had a cold, convinced it was something far worse. Behaviour changes like these are a way to try to control these worries. But rather than helping to alleviate them, they tend to reinforce the idea that we have something to worry about. "These behaviours make the thoughts more common," says Abramowitz. And they can be a symptom of postpartum OCD, another PMAD.
How to Get Help
If any of the four scenarios above ring true for you or you are experiencing other symptoms of a PMAD, then it's possible you are experiencing a mood or anxiety disorder for which there is effective treatment. And you will feel so much better when you access it. Here are some places to start:
- Your OB or midwife
- Your primary care provider
- Your pediatrician
- Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA) on 1300 726 306 (Monday to Friday, 9am–7pm)
- Lifeline Australia - 13 11 14
- Your Employee Assistance Program at your work
An important note: If thoughts of harming yourself or your child make sense to you and seem like the "right" thing to do, you could have a rare and serious - but also treatable - condition called postpartum psychosis. One to two in 1000 mothers experience it. It requires immediate medical attention and a mother should go - or be brought to - her nearest emergency room.
Experiencing worry is part of being a parent, and for some, so is experiencing a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder. Neither is something to be ashamed of. And you deserve support for whatever you are going through.