The last parenting taboo?

The irrational fear of harming – or even killing – your own baby is driving some mums to breaking point. Jo Macfarlane reports on a terrifying condition that is shrouded in shame and secrecy

new mums intrusive thoughts

Talking about her seven-year-old daughter Elsie, Denver Tasker’s voice is full of adoration. Everyone comments on the strong bond they share, she says, not to mention the fact that they look identical. So the idea that Denver could deliberately cause Elsie any hurt – let alone pain – is unthinkable.

And yet, in the weeks and months after Elsie was born in 2014, Denver struggled in secret with what may be one of motherhood’s last taboos: something considered so shameful few mothers will admit to it.

Walking down the street, Denver had a strong urge to push Elsie’s pram into oncoming traffic. At home, she would imagine throwing her baby daughter down the stairs. Horrifying, traumatising images of the aftermath would haunt her waking hours.

At its worst, when Elsie was just a few months old, Denver, an optical assistant from Sutton-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, kept herself awake at night over fears that she might kill Elsie in her sleep. The trauma of these thoughts led to severe anxiety, and to Denver questioning everything about the person she thought she was.

‘I know deep down I would never have hurt her – I would never do anything like that,’ the 27-year-old insists today. ‘But the feelings and thoughts would scare me because they felt so real for a split second. I was scared that I would do it impulsively.

‘Was I a sick, aggressive mother, capable of doing something truly appalling to my own flesh and blood? Even thinking those things felt, to me, like I must be an awful person.’

It’s an extraordinarily brave admission for any new mother to make. But Denver is – shockingly – far from alone.

The latest research suggests that up to half of mothers in early parenthood experience powerful, disturbing visions of harming their babies. One imagined stabbing her baby repeatedly with a kitchen knife. Another visualised throwing her infant from an open window that she sat beside as she breastfed. Others admit they have ‘seen’ themselves punching their child in the face or drowning them in the bath.

Despite the huge numbers of mothers affected, the subject remains almost impossible to talk about because of the overwhelming guilt, shame and fear these images provoke. Women believe they are alone and are therefore terrified that any admission will lead to police or social services becoming involved.

Charlotte Harman from Essex experienced these intensely disturbing thoughts after the births of both of her children. She remembers standing at the top of the stairs holding her eldest daughter Jessica– then a newborn – when an image of the baby falling out of her arms and bouncing down the steps ‘took my breath away. It was horribly traumatic – like watching an accident and you can’t look away,’ the 28-year-old recalls.

‘It felt so real, and happened repeatedly for a month. I didn’t tell anyone, but I’d ask other people to carry her on the stairs, and just said it made me nervous.’

Today, Charlotte also has a three-month-old son, Freddie – and the disturbing thoughts have returned, only worse. ‘I don’t want to hurt my son,’ Charlotte insists. ‘But the shame is much stronger this time.’

Charlotte now walks as far from the bannister as possible when she is upstairs. As is common, she is too scared to tell anyone else what she’s experiencing. ‘I’m worried about how people might react,’ she confesses. ‘I’m afraid doctors won’t understand and will try to involve social services. I don’t want to lose my children.’ Clinical psychologist Dr Caroline Boyd, a specialist in perinatal mental health, has two very important messages for sufferers: firstly, you are not alone. Far from it. Secondly, although these visions are terrifying, they are a sign that you are very unlikely to actually harm your child.

Known by mental-health experts as ‘intrusive thoughts’, they are a well-recognised phenomenon. Intrusive thoughts featuring intentional harm to your child are particularly common in new parents and, although most sufferers are women, it is important to note that men can also be affected.

‘These [thoughts] are universal, very normal and relate to our real fears as new parents,’ explains Dr Boyd. ‘They come with really intense emotions, including horror, guilt and shame. Mothers grappling with their new role and responsibility for a tiny baby interpret them to mean they’re failing as a parent. But it isn’t true.’

In fact, far from being a danger to their children, women who experience intrusive thoughts about harming them are less likely to hurt them, according to one of the biggest studies ever carried out into new motherhood, involving over 700 Canadian women, which was published earlier this month.

Neither should we confuse intrusive thoughts with postpartum psychosis. The latter condition affects women soon after giving birth and often includes delusions, such as being convinced that their child is possessed by the devil or was swapped for another baby at birth; hearing voices which ‘tell’ them to cause harm to themselves or their child; or believing people are out to get them.

The crucial difference here is that women with postpartum psychosis often believe the delusions to be real and frequently do not realise that they are unwell. In contrast, women suffering with intrusive thoughts know that these visions are outside their ‘normal’ thinking and are consequently deeply disturbed by them. In other words, the more horrified you are by the thoughts, the less likely you are to act on them.

As Dr Boyd puts it: ‘Our reaction to these thoughts is important. If a woman is feeling intense horror, shame or guilt, it’s a strong sign she’s not going to hurt her baby.’

Yet even if intrusive thoughts aren’t actually dangerous, they are still profoundly disturbing. So why do they happen and what can we do to combat them?

The Canadian researchers suggest the thoughts may be linked, in some cases, to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which pregnancy can spark or exacerbate. Rather than being focused on compulsive and repetitive behaviours such as handwashing or tidying to reduce anxiety, it can involve obsessive thoughts – in this case, about potential risks to the child.

Dr Boyd adds that, in some instances they can also be explained by the fact that our brains are hyper-alert to danger when we become new parents.

‘These thoughts are the brain’s way of alerting us to potential danger, which triggers our internal alarm system,’ she says. ‘So if you’re holding a sharp knife, or are near some stairs or an open window, your brain is recognising these things as a potential threat to your baby.

‘As you adjust to the enormous responsibility of being a parent, you become more conscious of your power in contrast to your baby’s vulnerability. So visualising these terrible things helps you to stay vigilant.

‘But our brain can’t distinguish between a life-or-death threat which is external – such as walking into a busy road – and an intrusive thought. The response is the same: a flood of adrenaline and cortisol, and a feeling of fear.’

Depression can also exacerbate intrusive thoughts, says Dr Boyd, and people with a history of anxiety, depression or trauma appear more prone to them.

In terms of treatment, Lauren Tonner, safeguarding manager at perinatal mental-health charity Pandas, says that opening up and talking about what you are experiencing significantly reduces the distress.

‘Many parents still suffer in silence as they believe that they will be judged and seen as an unfit carer. This is absolutely not the case. When parents speak about these intrusive thoughts it can help to rationalise them and to remove their power.’

For Sophie Parker-Jeal, reaching out for help has changed her life. She was tormented by persistent, horrific images following the birth of her daughter Erin, now four, in 2017.

‘The thoughts began weeks after Erin was born,’ Sophie, 36, recalls. ‘I was so happy at the start – so calm and so in love with her.

‘One day, something just switched, and I had this vision, out of nowhere, of punching her in the face. Just this awful violence. I felt terrible, the worst person in the world. But it got so much worse, and so much more disturbing.’

Sophie, from Southwest London, was in the kitchen when she was overcome by the horrifying thought that she would stab her daughter with the knife in her hand.

‘The vision wouldn’t stop so I gave up using knives,’ she said. ‘If I held Erin, my hands would get really stiff because of the visions I’d have of strangling her. It was as if I was physically trying to restrain myself. I became so terrified of hurting her that I told my parents I didn’t want to be on my own with her. That went on for weeks.’

Sophie admits she doesn’t know how she survived those difficult months. ‘The guilt was relentless. The thoughts were in my dreams, they were there when I woke up. There was no escape. And yet  there isn’t a violent bone in my body.’

It is precisely this contradiction that makes this experience so disturbing, and nonsensical, for new mothers: intense love on the one hand, coupled with completely out-of-character thoughts of violence on the other.

‘The love I had for Erin was so overwhelming that it felt like it was a separate person who was thinking these things,’ Sophie explains. ‘But I did think that if I was having these thoughts, I must be a bad person. But I was, at one point, suicidal.’

Sophie eventually went to A&E and was referred to a community crisis team who involved social services. Sophie found them ‘horribly unsupportive’. But a perinatal mental health doctor she was referred to diagnosed her with OCD and reassured her, and the rest of the team, that she was not a risk to Erin.

‘It was the best thing in the world to put a name to it,’ she says. ‘When you actually talk about it, it doesn’t feel so bad. And you realise that no one thinks you’rea psychopath. I thought I’d be locked up, that Erin would be taken away.’

Many women are likely to feel validated and less alone simply by confiding in a friend or loved one, Dr Boyd says.

But for people like Sophie, and others whose thoughts become overwhelming, talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which are available on the NHS, can help develop strategies to minimise their power. CBT has been ‘transformative’, Sophie says.

Denver, too, found confiding in her therapist helped ‘enormously. He told me that the fact I was worried and shocked by my thoughts was a sign that it was normal – that I had nothing to worry about. To hear that was so reassuring.’

Medication such as antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs, can help for more severe cases.

‘I still get the thoughts,’ says Sophie, ‘but they’re fleeting, and I don’t pay any attention to them. I’m not scared any more.’ And reaching out to seek help can only make you a better parent.

‘While these thoughts aren’t generally clinically alarming, they are perhaps a warning sign that you might need some extra support,’ Dr Boyd advises. ‘This isn’t a sign of failure or weakness but shows strength and a commitment to improving things for you and your baby.’

DON’T SUFFER ALONE

Dr Boyd shares her tips for dealing with disturbing intrusive thoughts

  • How we react to these visions gives them The more we fight them, or label ourselves ‘bad’ for having them, the more they grow in intensity. When they come, acknowledge them with kindness, and without judgment, then try to let them go. Say to yourself: ‘You don’t mean I am a bad person. I’m a good enough mum and I’m safe.’
  • Be brave and confide in a friend or loved one. Chances are they’ll have experienced something You’ll feel validated and supported.
  • Ask for support if you need it – whether that’s someone to look after the baby for a couple of hours, or a helping hand around the house.
  • If your thoughts are impacting your ability to function or enjoy life, speak to your GP or a trusted health
  • You can find more information and resources at drcarolineboyd.com/infant-related-harm-thoughts
  • If you have an overwhelming desire to hurt yourself or your baby, seek help immediately. The mental-health charity Pandas has a free UK helpline you can call on 0808 196 1776 (from 11am to 10pm), or text the word PANDAS to 85258 for 24/7 support.

Or call the Samaritans 24/7 helpline on 116 123, dial 999 or visit your nearest hospital A&E department


Dr Caroline Boyd’s book Mindful New Mum is published by DK, price £16.99. To order a copy for £14.44 until 4 April, go to mailshop.co.uk/ books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20