Skip to main content

New mothers’ thoughts of harm related to the newborn

Abstract

There are few published studies of new mothers’ experiences of intrusive thoughts of harm related to the newborn. Evidence-based information about the normal phenomenology of intrusive thoughts of harm related to the newborn is needed to facilitate appropriate clinical decision-making. The objective of this project was to assess the phenomenology, prevalence, correlates, and behavioural sequelae of maternal thoughts of harm related to the newborn. One hundred women were recruited during pregnancy. Participants were assessed prenatally and at 4 and 12 weeks postpartum using questionnaires and a semi-structured interview about unwanted thoughts of harm related to the newborn. Postpartum intrusive thoughts of accidental harm to the infant were universal, and close to half of the sample reported unwanted thoughts of intentionally harming their infant. Compared with intentional harm thoughts, accidental harm thoughts were more frequent and more time consuming, but less distressing. High parenting stress and low social support predicted the occurrence of thoughts of intentional harm. Little evidence of an association between these thoughts and aggressive parenting was found. Unwanted intrusive thoughts of harming one’s infant are a relatively normative experience during the early postpartum period, particularly in association with greater parenting stress and low social support.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

References

  1. Abidin RR (1995) Parenting stress index. Psychological Assessment Resources, Odessa, FL

    Google Scholar 

  2. Abramowitz JS, Schwartz SA, Moore KM (2003a) Obsessional thought in postpartum females and their partners: content, severity, and relationship with depression. J Clin Psychol Med Settings 10:157–164

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Abramowitz JS, Schwartz SA, Moore KM, Luenzmann KR (2003b) Obsessive–compulsive symptoms in pregnancy and the puerperium: a review of the literature. J Anxiety Disord 17:461–478

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  4. Abramowitz JS, Khandker M, Nelson CA, Deacon BJ, Rygwall R (2006) The role of cognitive factors in the pathogenesis of obsessive–compulsive symptoms: a prospective study. Behav Res Ther 44:1361–1374

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  5. Belsky J (1993) Etiology of child maltreatment: a developmental–ecological analysis. Psychol Bull 114:413–434

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  6. Belsky J, Vondra J (1989) Lessons from child abuse: the determinants of parenting. In: Cicchetti D, Carlson V (eds) Current research and theoretical advances in child maltreatment. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, pp 153–202

    Google Scholar 

  7. Brewin CR, Hunter E, Carroll F, Tata P (1996) Intrusive memories in depression: an index of schema activation? Psychol Med 26:1271–1276

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  8. Chaffin M, Kelleher K, Hollenberg J (1996) Onset of physical abuse and neglect: psychiatric, substance abuse, and social risk factors from prospective community data. Child Abuse Neglect 20:191–203

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  9. Chaudron LH, Pies RW (2003) The relationship between postpartum psychosis and bipolar disorder: a review. J Clin Psychiatry 64:1284–1292

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Christensen E (1999) The prevalence and nature of abuse and neglect in children under four: a National survey. Child Abuse Rev 8:109–119

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Collins NL, Dunkel-Schetter D, Lobel M et al (1993) Social support in pregnancy: psychosocial correlates of birth outcomes and postpartum depression. J Pers Soc Psychol 65:1243–1258

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  12. Eysenck SBG, Eysenck HJ, Barrett P (1985) A revised version of the psychoticism scale. Pers Individ Differ 6:21–29

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Francis LJ, Brown LB, Philipchalk R (1992) The development of an abbreviated form of the Revised Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (EPQR-A): its use among students in England, Canada, the USA and Australia. Pers Individ Differ 34:443–449

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Gil D (1970) Violence against children. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA

    Google Scholar 

  15. Graham JE, Lobel M, DeLuca RS (2002) Anger after childbirth: an overlooked reaction to postpartum stressors. Psychol Women Q 26:222–223

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Horowitz MJ (1975) Intrusive and repetitive thoughts after experimental stress. Arch Gen Psychiatry 32:1457–1463

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  17. Jennings KD, Ross S, Popper S, Elmore M (1999) Thoughts of harming infants in depressed and nondepressed mothers. J Affect Disord 54:21–28

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  18. Larsen KE, Schwartz SA, Whiteside SP, Khandker M, Moore KM, Abramowitz JS (2006) Thought control strategies used by parents reporting postpartum obsessions. J Cogn Psychother 20:435–445

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Leckman JF, Mayes LC, Feldman R (1999) Early parental preoccupations and behaviors and their possible relationship to the symptoms of obsessive–compulsive disorder. Acta Psychiatr Scand Suppl 00:1–26

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  20. Lee C, Barr RG, Catherine N (2007) Age-related incidence of publicly reported shaken baby syndrome cases: is crying a trigger for shaking? J Dev Behav Pediatr 28:288–293

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  21. Maina G, Albert U, Bogetto F, Vaschetto P, Ravizza L (2000) Recent life events and obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD): the role of pregnancy/delivery. Psychiatry Res 89:49–58

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Nonacs RM, Cohen LS, Viguera AC (2005) Diagnosis and treatment of mood and anxiety disorders in pregnancy. In: Cohen LS, Nonacs RM (eds) Mood and anxiety disorders during pregnancy and postpartum. American Psychiatric, Washington, DC, USA, pp 17–51

    Google Scholar 

  23. Parkinson L, Rachman SJ (1980) Are intrusive thoughts subject to habituation? Behav Res Ther 18:409–418

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  24. Purdon C, Clark DA (1993) Obsessive intrusive thoughts in nonclinical subjects: I. Content and relation with depressive, anxious and obsessional symptoms. Behav Res Ther 3:713–720

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Rachman S, de Silva P (1978) Abnormal and normal obsessions. Behav Res Ther 16:233–248

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  26. Reitman D, Currier RO, Stickle TR (2002) A critical evaluation of the Parenting Stress Index—Short Form (PSI-SF) in a head start population. J Clin Child Adolesc Psychol 31:384–392

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  27. Salkovskis PM, Harrison J (1984) Abnormal and normal obsessions: a replication. Behav Res Ther 22:549–552

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  28. Straus MA, Hamby SL, Finkelhor D et al (1998) Identification of child maltreatment with the Parent–Child Conflict Tactics Scales: development and psychometric data for a national sample of American parents. Child Abuse Neglect 22:249–270

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  29. Wisner KL, Peindl KS, Gigliotti T, Hanusa BH (1999) Obsessions and compulsions in women with postpartum depression. J Clin Psychiatry 60:176–180

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  30. Wisner KL, Gracious BL, Piontek CM, Peindl K, Perel JM (2003) Postpartum disorders: phenomenology, treatment approaches and relationship to infanticide. In: Spinelli MG (ed) Infanticide: psychosocial and legal perspectives on mothers who kill. American Psychiatric, Washington, DC, pp 35–60

    Google Scholar 

  31. Wolfe DA (1985) Child-abusive parents: an empirical review and analysis. Psychol Bull 97:462–482

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  32. Yali AM, Lobel M (2002) Stress-resistance resources and coping in pregnancy. Anxiety Stress Coping 15:289–309

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgments

We thank Michael Papsdorf, Elizabeth Horner, Marion MacKay-Dunn, Maria Watson, and the study participants for their invaluable contributions to this project. This research was supported by a grant to Drs. Woody (PI) and Fairbrother (co-investigator) from the North Shore Health Research Foundation. The authors have no conflicts of interest related to this project.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Nichole Fairbrother.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Fairbrother, N., Woody, S.R. New mothers’ thoughts of harm related to the newborn. Arch Womens Ment Health 11, 221–229 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00737-008-0016-7

Download citation

Keywords

  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Thoughts of harm
  • Postpartum mental health