Why you might constantly worry about something happening to your baby

When my kids were little, I would sometimes get to the end of a long day, finally close my eyes only for my brain to be suddenly overtaken by an image of Noah, my little boy, falling off something or running in front of a car. The thought felt like it hit my whole body, my eyes would fly open, my heart began palpitating and then I’d be wide awake, terrified something would happen to my baby.

That wasn’t the only version, I had other upsetting thoughts and dreams about my kids that had me terrified. I even brought it up with a therapist because I thought it meant something about my mental health. It turns out to be a very common experience for new parents. They’re known as ‘intrusive thoughts’ - thoughts that frequently intrude our brain. We find them hard to ignore and when we do manage to ignore them, they return time and time again. Maybe you have them too? A lot of parents do it turns out. Often people are too embarrassed to discuss these thoughts or they think someone will try to take their child away. The other common thing about intrusive thoughts is that parents are shocked when they have them because it’s so drastically the opposite from how they see themselves as a parent and what they want for their child.

These thoughts can range from constantly worrying that your baby will stop breathing to even thoughts of yourself intentionally harming your baby. Something that I found to be a relief is that other parents were experiencing the same thoughts, often down to the specific detail. I was no different from many other parents. In fact, some studies suggest intrusive thoughts “occur in very nearly half of parents of infants in the general population”

The research that’s out there about intrusive thoughts in parents agrees that it has to do with the immense pressure we feel for keeping our babies alive and healthy. The stress of this pressure makes us more prone to anxiety and these intrusive thoughts are a product of that anxiety. It is very unlikely you will intentionally hurt your baby, it’s just one more side effect of being a parent. You are newly responsible for another whole person and that’s a lot to take on. Along with being sleep deprived and at the beck and call of a tiny person, you also get to feel like your brain has it in for you. 

Often we try to block out intrusive thoughts which only seems to make them more vivid. Instead, experts say it’s better to face them in a way that works for you. My solution was to say to myself: “My kids are okay, Noah/Leah is sleeping in their bed. Everything is fine, I’m never going to let this happen to them”. I still get these thoughts now and then and I have to use this technique. Sometimes I even say it out loud.

Here are a few other ways to handle intrusive thoughts:

  • “Repeating the bothersome thought in a singsong voice or saying it aloud, over and over again can help”, says Stefan Hofmann, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and anxiety researcher at Boston University in a New York Times article.
  • Use an exercise that centers you in the present like meditation or yoga. Parents.com says this helps you be in the here and now, rather than get lost in your thoughts.
  • Speak to a professional - As soon as I spoke to a therapist I realized how common intrusive thoughts are among parents. It made me feel so much better. Additionally, a therapist can help you understand whether what you’re experiencing is harmless or if you are experiencing something more akin to OCD or post-natal depression, either way, the best option is to talk to people and ask for help.

Back when the thought of harm coming to my kids first began I wish I’d had known how common this was. Talk to other people about whatever thoughts you’re having. Usually, you’ll find you’re not alone.