In a survey mailed to 300 childbearing women and their partners, participants were asked to report distressing thoughts, such as "My baby is going to die from SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome)" or "What if I drown my baby while bathing her?" Overall, seven categories of thoughts were studied: suffocation or SIDS, accidents, intentional harm, losing the infant, illness, unacceptable sexual thoughts and contamination. Of those who responded, 69 percent of mothers and 58 percent of fathers reported having these types of thoughts.
"Everyone occasionally has thoughts that are contradictory to their moral or ethical beliefs," says Jon Abramowitz, Ph.D., a Mayo Clinic psychologist who carried out this study with Katherine Moore, M.D., a Mayo Clinic psychiatrist. "The difference is that people who develop problems with obsessional thoughts manage those thoughts differently. Usually we dismiss disgusting thoughts -- such as pushing our baby out the window -- as something we would never do. However, people who develop problems tend to believe that thinking the thought means they are bad people who might actually act upon the repulsive thought."
The fact that new fathers have intrusive thoughts moves the debate away from previous thinking that this was a female problem brought on by hormonal fluctuations after childbirth.
"Most likely a variety of factors influence a person who has obsessional thoughts," points out Dr. Abramowitz. "How people's brains are hard-wired may play a role, as well as how people are trained as a child to think about themselves or the importance of their thoughts. Stress situations, like the period after a child is born, definitely increase the likelihood that obsessional thoughts will occur."
The difference between obsessional thoughts, which will not lead to violence, and psychotic thoughts, which may lead to the rare case of harm against the child, is subtle but important. In the case of obsessional thoughts, parents are repulsed, disgusted and frightened by the thought of harming their child. The person tries to resist these thoughts. In the case of psychotic thoughts, parents view their thoughts as realistic and rational.
Whenever parents have difficulty controlling recurring thoughts of harm to their child, they should seek professional care. Whether thoughts are depressed, psychotic or obsessional should be left to a professional to determine. In either case, the doctor will be able to prescribe medications and/or therapy to help bring relief.
The findings of this study are of particular importance to perinatal educators who might be able to circumvent the issue by informing soon-to-be parents that having intrusive, unwelcome thoughts is normal, and the best way to deal with them is simply to dismiss them.
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