All moms worry about their babies, but if you’ve ever had thoughts like “What if I drop my baby down the stairs?” or “If I don’t check on him throughout the night, he’ll stop breathing,” you might worry that something’s wrong with you. Rest assured, most moms experience anxious thoughts, images, or impulses during the months following pregnancy and it’s usually no cause for concern. Read on to find out why this happens, ways you can find relief, and when it’s something more serious.

A common problem

According to a recent study published in the Archives of Women’s Mental Health, every single postpartum woman who participated reported having intrusive thoughts of accidental harm coming to their infants. And nearly half said they had experienced intrusive thoughts about intentionally harming their babies— things like shaking, dropping, smothering or drowning them. These thoughts usually occur after delivery, although they can start as early as pregnancy and last for about 12 weeks or more.

“Scary thoughts fall on a continuum of sorts; some thoughts are scarier than others,” according to Karen Kleiman, a licensed clinical social worker, author of Dropping the Baby and Other Scary Thoughts and executive director of The Postpartum Stress Center, who says that what may scare one mom, may not bother another.

Anxious thoughts can take different forms too. You might think “what if” statements like, what if my baby gets sick, or what if I’m not a good mom? You might also have intrusive memories of a difficult delivery, for example, or have unwanted images or impulses of harm coming to your baby. It’s also common to worry that you and your partner will get sick, get into a car accident, or die. “They can be about anything that is meaningful and precious,” Kleiman said.

Although it’s not clear why moms experience these thoughts, research suggests that they are a result of our natural instinct to protect our babies from harm. And if you have a family history of anxiety, your response may be stronger. “What we do know is that scary thoughts emerge from a complex system that involves a combination of genetics, biology, thinking styles, and environmental stressors,” according to Kleiman.

How to cope

“Once they start, they are actually self-perpetuating—fueled by fear and avoidance—and can continue indefinitely,” said Dr. Pamela Wiegartz, author of The Pregnancy and Postpartum Anxiety Workbook: Practical Skills to Help You Overcome Anxiety, Worry, Panic Attacks, Obsessions, and Compulsions and Director of CBT Services and Training at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

By acknowledging that this is a common experience and that it doesn’t mean you’re crazy, dangerous, or a bad mother is the first step, according to Wiegartz, who is also an assistant professor of Clinical Psychology at Harvard Medical School. “Fear and misinterpretation feeds these thoughts, education reverses the cycle,” she said.

It’s also important to continue doing the things that you fear or that you may have avoided, like not driving in the car with your baby or being alone with him. “This fuels the belief that bad things are not happening only because of these precautionary measures and reinforces the idea that these thoughts are dangerous,” Wiegartz said.

When to get help

“Simply put, worrying about these thoughts is a very good sign,” according to Kleiman, adding moms who are concerned about these thoughts shows that the way they’re feeling is actually anxiety-driven and not psychosis.

If however, your thoughts are frequent, overwhelming, very distressful, and seriously impacting your ability to care for your child or get through the day, it’s important to seek professional help. Sometimes these thoughts can be indicative of a more serious condition like obsessive compulsive disorder or postpartum depression. 

“If they are accompanied by extreme sadness, anger, hopelessness or a belief that mom or baby would be better off dead, or hallucinations or bizarre and violent behavior, help should be sought immediately,” Wiegartz said.

Julie Revelant is a freelance writer specializing in parenting, health, and women's issues and a mom. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.

Julie Revelant is a health journalist and a consultant who provides content marketing and copywriting services for the healthcare industry. She's also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.