It’s a thing: Fear fantasies with babies

(I just released a New MoxieTopic: Teaching Your Child To Respect Boundaries (Theirs and Yours).)

Yesterday in the Ask Moxie private FB group I asked about common health problems we have in the year after having a baby, and one of the things that came up was those almost unstoppable fear scenarios that we have about our babies. Sharon Silver called them “fear fantasies,” and I think that’s exactly what they are. Women in the group were shocked to know that this was an actual thing, because they thought it had just been them having these bizarre and scary persistent thoughts and no one else had.

A fear fantasy (as I experienced them and as other have described them) is one constant, specific fear of something happening to our child that we can’t will away or stop having just by force of will. (With my older child my fear fantasy was that a car would jump the curb and hit him in the stroller. With my younger child my fear fantasy was that somehow my older child would accidentally step on him and paralyze him. Others have described fear fantasies of accidentally drowning their child, that the child would be kidnapped, or other variations on harm coming to the child.)

They seem hormonally-based to me. Mine came on at a few weeks after birth with both of my kids and lasted for around six weeks. Others have fear fantasies at certain points in their menstrual cycles. Some women experience them for longer periods, and some for shorter periods.

I decided to ride mine out, because they were temporary (and the second time I knew that they would go away once my hormones evened out). If you are having them to the extent that they’re inhibiting your parenting, making you even more scared, or don’t stop, tell someone. There’s nothing wrong with you. They’re just another one of those hormonally-based mood things (like depression, anxiety, etc.) that can be treated by evening out your hormones by any of a number of methods. Having a fear is NOT having the urge to do something, so you have a little time to figure out treatment. (If you do have the urge to cause harm to your baby or yourself, this is a different illness called postpartum psychosis and it can be treated but you need to tell someone NOW so you can get treatment before anyone is hurt.)

Who has had a fear fantasy? How long did it last? Did you do anything about it or just ride it out?  If anyone’s experienced fear fantasies and some other hormone-based mood disorder (like PPD, anxiety, postpartum psychosis), how did they differ?

44 thoughts on “It’s a thing: Fear fantasies with babies”

  1. I had a terrible staircase in the condo where our daughter first lived. We called it the death stairs and it wrapped around, but had widely spaced railings. I would walk down sideways, leaning against the wall because I could imagine perfectly falling, tripping, dropping my baby, and then she’d roll off through the railings and fall an additional half flight to the tile/cement floor. I was so happy to move before she got too mobile. This baby I have repeatedly envisioned a fire, and gone over and over the motions of who would rescue whom and how. Nasty things, fear fantasies.

  2. With my oldest it was the stairs too. I could not control the vision of accidentally dropping or throwing him down the stairs. I waited it out. I had undiagnosed PPD and waited that out too. It wasn’t until I had my second and I was SO HAPPY and SO IN LOVE the first six months that I realized what bad shape I had been in with my first.

  3. My irrational fear is of a car accident plunging us into water and me trying to figure out which kid to rescue first. I have visions of swimming around in the back of the van trying to free all four from their car seats and worrying about which one would drown before I could free him. I didn’t realize this was a fear fantasy until just now. Wow. Thank you. Maybe I can let go now.

  4. We lived on third floors for the first 8 years of my parenting and I had similar staircase fall fears when my babies were little. I was also afraid of window falls as they grew older. I was always afraid that somehow the kids would get the window open, or a screen would break under their pressure.

    My kids are adopted, so while I won’t say it ISn’t hormones, I will say to the extent it’s hormonal it’s not only generated by pregnancy and birth. Through the years of parenting babies and toddlers, I found myself nodding along to almost everything women who gave birth chalked up to hormones. My nonscientific theory is that being put in maternal charge of a baby kicks on some kind of maternal hormones whether you birthed it or not.

    1. Shannon, I thought there had been studies done showing that adoptive parents had those same hormones, and that it was the acts of parenting that caused the hormones. Or am I just imagining?

    2. I completely agree. We adopted and I had a lot of the same hormonal reactions, including fear fantasies. We had a few lovely moms donate best milk for our daughter and I told my husband we couldn’t get a chest freezer to store it because the baby could fall in (this is an immobile newborn) and freeze to death. We also have a trailing in the kitchen overlooking stairs to the basement and I insisted that my husband install a safety net so that we didn’t drop her over.

  5. yep, mine were (and still are) mainly, falling off a ledge of something – at our gymnastics place, the parents watch from a loft and I’m deathly afraid my 4-year-old will somehow fly over the edge (that’s above her head – I don’t even know how that would happen). When my first was a baby, it was that she would somehow leap from my arms (at 2 weeks old) and fall over the stair railing. Luckily, my friend had a baby the year before I had my first and she had fear fantasies so I knew they were something that happens and I was still weird, but not for that reason.

  6. WOW. I have always had these, and I thought I was just oddly morbid. Phew. Isn’t it good to know the rest of you are weird like me!?

    I definitely had a rush of them after having my baby last year though, I think because there were more things to fear. My "fear fantasies" about myself mostly involve pedestrian accidents or car accidents. With the baby it was him ceasing to breath while he was in the car seat or any other time I couldn’t see him, and when we took him to the beach the first time, that he would be accidentally swept away by a wave if one of us waded out into the water more than knee deep while holding him.

    He’s 8 months now, and the fears have definitely subsided significantly from a multiple times a week to once or twice a month. A friend and I were pregnant and due at the same time, and she very sadly lost her baby at 32 weeks with no explanation. I felt like that was what drove my "he’s just going to stop breathing and I won’t know why" fears, but I have definitely always had this type of fear. I never thought about a possible hormonal connection. I definitely will stop and think about that now.

  7. It was drowning for me, and I thought it was happening just because I lost a brother to accidental drowning (that is, I didn’t realize at first how common fear fantasies are). With both my children, I had a hard time with bathing them as infants (it’s possible I sponge bathed in the sink longer than most…), but I otherwise just rode it out by trying to stop, interrupt the anxiety spiral, tell myself I was being crazy and hopefully snapping out of it.

  8. I had PPD with both kids, untreated with my first for a year, preemptively treated with my second. Both times with standard low doses of antidepressants. With my first, I was terrified that I was going to accidentally throw him down the stairs. My stairs were not scary or anything, they were enclosed like a hallway, and I didn’t have to go on them more often that you would expect. But if I was carrying him I went down the stairs on my bottom most of the time. I was also very very afraid that I would step on him when he was on the floor playing. This started very soon after he was born and lasted for maybe 6 months. With my second kid, I started medication a few weeks before he was born. I felt a little nervy going up and down stairs with him for a few weeks, but nothing really serious. It was a much happier postpartum experience and I think the medication helped a lot. I never worried about outside forces over which I had no control, like a car jumping the curb. I was much more concerned that I would do something horrible.

  9. Thank you for this. I really had no idea this was a real thing. I only wish I’d known this 4 years ago when I had my son. I seemed to imagine every possible worst-case scenario but my most common irrational fear was thinking that my baby would get run over by a car. Just terrible slow motion envisioning. I still get it once in a rare while but not every night like the first year. It might not really have lasted that long. It seemed like a long time, though. I just rode it out. I don’t think it affected my parenting but that was because I mostly only experienced it when I closed my eyes to try to sleep. Then they just flooded my brain and made my heartbeat skyrocket and prevented me from sleeping. I think if I’d had them during the day, they would’ve been paralyzing.

  10. I had dreams almost constantly the first year of my son’s life that I left him sleeping alone in the house at night while I went to go buy groceries or out for a beer. I never did those things, of course, but I dreamt about them and couldn’t shake the fear when I woke up that I might, somehow, have done them in my sleep.

    I have had moderate to severe depression and anxiety for many years, but the fear I experienced from these dreams was markedly different from anything I had had before.

  11. With my first, I had this a lot in the first few months. The ones I remember best were that I would drop her, either on the floor or in our concrete driveway. They were pretty vivid, and my brain would actually go to the "baby lying broken and bleeding" place before snapping out of it, but I knew it was normal (thanks, I think, to this site!), so I rode them out. However, I will say that I’ve had them much less and with less severity with the second. Thanks to a better birth experience and a whole host of other things, my post-partum mood seems to be better overall with the second, so that might have something to do with it.

    I also seem to recall reading somewhere that these are the brain’s way of actually protecting the baby – keeping you alert to the dangers, etc. I don’t know how true that is, but it certainly kept me cautious in those first few months.

  12. Oh, my gosh, I’m so glad to know this has a name. But I don’t think it’s necessarily hormonal – my daughter was in the NICU for 4.5 months, so that first post-partum wave of hormones was well gone by the time she came home. I think it has something to do with sleep deprivation and the act of parenting, as someone else said. When sher came home from the hospital, I was afraid to wash the dishes around her because I was afraid that a knife would slip out of my hands and stab her. I knew this was irrational and I had plenty of things to be legitimately worried about (she was on oxygen, an apnea monitor, and has a feeding tube) that I just calmly talked myself out of it every time (and I may have left the dishes for my husband to do!). Now that she "helps" me in the kitchen, I remember this fear every once in a while and I am amazed at the power it had over me. I mean, when in my life have I EVER squirted a knife out of my hands while washing it?

  13. I was afraid the car would get stuck on the train tracks and hit by a train. Somehow that translated into me being afraid I would die and the baby would starve, even though I had the baby and often my older child in the car, I didn’t fear them dying.

  14. I used the term “Fear Fantasies” yesterday when I replied to a question that Moxie posted. The moms responded in a big way. Most of the moms said they’d experienced fear fantasies, but thought they were the only one.

    New moms are very vulnerable after giving birth. Your heart is open, your hormones are wonky and your instincts are being turned on. You’re experiencing what this new being will mean in your life, it’s powerful and overwhelming. You may even wonder if you’re up to the task?

    Fear fantasies come out of the blue and hit you like a ton of bricks. You feel panicky, your heart is racing, and your thoughts are so morose it feels as if your mind has been taken over by someone other than you. The fear is not rational; you clearly understand this not happening in the moment, yet you feel as if it were happening right before your eyes. When your rational mind returns you wonder if there’s something wrong with you?

    For some women having fear fantasies is truly a sign of a bigger issue. If you sense that’s true for you, do not hesitate to seek help. Others can ride it out, as Moxie said. Only you know what’s true for you.

    I believe this occurs because your mothering instincts are being turned on, whether you have given birth or are adopting. You’re realizing that you’re no longer just an individual—you’re a mother. You’re coming to terms with being responsible for another human being. Your hormones have placed you in a very vulnerable state and are triggering these unconscious horrific fears.

    When you have a fear fantasy remember two things.
    1. FEAR is an acronym that means, False-Evidence-Appearing-Real.
    2. You have a choice.
    You can either stay with the fear, letting it paralyze you. Or you can breathe, get centered and think about what you’d do if that situation were actually happening.

    No one can be truly prepared when bad things happen. That’s a fact that all moms have to learn to live with, and it’s really hard to accept. However, rehearsing what you’d do if your fear were actually playing out in reality empowers you, and shows you that you are indeed capable and could handle it if you had to.

    BTW, when you adopt you do experience the same onset of hormones, you didn’t make that up Moxie. Becoming a parent, whether it’s through birth or adoption, is like turning on the instinctual light switch. Things you never considered before come into view and need to considered and dealt with. Also each time your child faces a potentially dangerous situation this can happen, triggering you to prepare by either letting go or adding new boundaries.

  15. Yes to all of the staircase fears. With #2, we had a landing with a railing that overlooked the twisting staircase and I could always picture myself somehow dropping her over that railing and having to watch her fall about 12 feet to the first floor. Just thinking about that now still makes me sweat.

    With #1, it was that she would somehow end up in the preheated oven. Irrational and terrifying.

  16. I’ve had these off and on since becoming a mother. My primary FF involves an intruder getting into the house, and me trying to get to my daughters before the intruder does. This involves long nights of lying in bed, figuring out the best "plan of action" depending on what door or window the intruder comes through. And this certainly is one reason why I feel safer sleeping with my children in the bedroom with me–I like knowing that we’re all together if something does go wrong in the night. I’ve also had dreams in which I’ve hurt my own children and those are far worse than the fear fantasies–but, probably due to some lovely protective repression, I have an easier time putting those behind me once I’ve cried about them for a day or so. The intruder "fantasies" are far more pervasive and difficult to shake.

  17. My fear fantasies varied, it wasn’t just one specific fear. But I would SEE whatever it was in excruciating detail; that car not making the turn tight enough and smashing into us; dropping the baby head first onto concrete; walking into his room in the morning to him not breathing. It would be so vivid and realistic that it felt more like remembering than imagining. I’m with the previous poster who said she didn’t realize how bad she had been with her first until she had the second. I just chalked so much up to sleep deprivation but my sleep was waaaay worse with my second and I wasn’t so unbalanced.

    1. Oh, Christina! You nailed it when you said it was more like remembering an event than imagining it! I had forgotten that element and how much it freaked me out. It definitely felt more like remembering.

  18. Every time I boiled water, and especially when carrying a pot of boiling water from the stove to the sink to drain it, I would remove my non-mobile baby from the far corner of the kitchen and put her in another room. Because somehow I was going to pour the entire pot of boiling water on her.

  19. I really thought it was my PPD. We had a paper cutter at work, the old fashioned kind like at schools. I had this image in my head of me putting my eldest’s hand down and chopping it off. It totally freaked me out. What kind of parent would I be if I was thinking of cutting my child’s hand off. I never told anyone because there were some cases of babies being taken away from families when she was born (these were cases of broken bones due to a genetic disease). I was terrified to get help for my PPD. I thought the state would come after me. So, that’s my fear fantasy world premiere.

  20. I think there’s a distinction between a fantasy where you fear you might "do something to" your child, and a fear that something might "happen to" your child. Those of you who posted that you experienced the fear of doing something to your child are being so honest and helpful to others. That situation is probably PPD and can benefit from having hormone levels checked and possibly some talk therapy. For those of you who fear that something "will happen" to your child, is what I was referring to when I called those fears a fear fantasy.

    1. Sharon, some of these seem like crosses between doing something and something happening, though. Like in my car hitting the stroller FF it happened because I couldn’t get the stroller out of the way quickly enough. And the accidentally putting into the preheated oven isn’t about deliberately putting a baby into an oven, but it just happening. So which category do those fall into?

  21. Perhaps fear fantasies are nature’s way of guaranteeing that mothers will do ANYTHING to protect their child? We worry so much because they are helpless.

  22. Mine was definitely a fear of "doing something". My in-laws had a lake house with a second floor balcony at the staircase landing. Whenever we visited when I had newborns I would imagine what it would be like to "accidentally" drop them over the edge and watch them smash onto the tile below. I was never actually worried that I would do this, but I was disturbed that I would even think about what it all would look like. I knew enough about PPD to ride it out… but I also tried not to linger on the landing. 😉

  23. Magda, the two examples you gave seem clearly defined to me. Maybe I’m not understanding. I would say not getting the stroller out of the way is clearly something happening to your baby, whether you couldn’t move it fast enough or it just happened. You lived in NY where there was very little protection on the streets from so many things. Possibly your subconscious was trying to come to grips with how to best protect your baby in a world you can’t control? The putting the baby in the oven is doing something to your baby, and may be a sign that you fear you’re not paying enough attention to things? The oven thing is most likely PPD. You can see how blurred the lines get and how many layers there are in looking at these types of things. That’s why I recommended first not giving into the fear, or trying to diagnose what’s going on. Just breath and get calm. Then look for any realistic resonance in your life.

    I also agree with Sarah. I think one aspect of the FF is to show you that you are capable and will do whatever it takes to protect your child. I remember when tall, my older one, was getting into cars with other teen drivers. I would have FF that the police would call and say there had been an accident. I realized I was trying to prepare myself, just in case. I knew I couldn’t really prepare myself, but somehow calmly thinking about what I would do meant that the information was inside of me, in case I ever needed it. Weird, I know. But it was how I learned to have faith he would be fine and let him go. He never had an accident. Did I understand you correctly?

  24. I had intrusive thoughts after my daughter was born. I remember imagining myself throwing her into a lion exhibit at the zoo. Sometimes it would be weird things about someone breaking into our house. But a short course of zoloft and a good support group and they stopped (ironically, shortly after they stopped someone DID try to break into our house – I found the guy at our back door). Different from that is the ongoing fear I’ve had that I consider a left over of infertility. I’ve always figured that our older child was the one we "earned" for going through infertility but since the second was a surprise I have this nagging fear that I’ve upset some sort of child-balance in the universe by asking for too much. Whenever she gets sick, I over-react.

  25. Thank you for this post! Is a fear fantasy different from a heightened/inflated/runaway sense of danger of everyday occurrences/potential accidents? Much like Dr. Confused shared earlier, I too move my child across the room from my boiling tea kettle (plug in counter model) not because I fear pouring it on him but because it could boil over or spill or accidentally break sending hot water in his direction.

    But I’ve also been having what I believe fit the fear fantasy definition more closely for weeks, perhaps months. And they’re growing more graphic/obscure. They’re of the "harm coming to my child" in the most-heartwrenching-news-story-you’ve-heard variety (think Daniel Pearl, the family that lost their two children at the hands of the nanny, and the tsunami pulling children from their parent’s grasp and out to sea) than me actually doing something to him or some horrible random traffic or household accident.

    I’ve always had an overactive imagination and still check behind the shower curtain/in closets when I hear odd sounds in the house. These glimpses of horrors aren’t paralyzing or limiting, but they do come upon me with great speed and detail and freak me out for a moment or two (particularly if I’m home alone with my son). I find if I sit with them and look at them "straight in the eye" rather than try to push them out of my sight/head, they just as swiftly and powerfully leave.

  26. I have both kinds. I definitely have the stairs one, where I’m worrying about something happening to my kid, but I also have a recurring fear, similar to Amy in Texas’s, that I’ll snap and smash my kid’s head on the kitchen counter. I would
    never really do this, but my brain has returned (intrusively) to it eversince he was tiny. And I’m SO glad for this topic. I’ve been thinking about this lately and wondering if it’s "normal" or if I’m a psychopath. :/

  27. The oven one was me. I’m fairly sure that I did not have PPD, but in retrospect I’m reasonably sure I had PP OCD/anxiety. About the same time, for about 2 weeks, I got this overwhelming obsessive fear of getting a papercut — I would think about it several times a day and just feel a weird surge of sweaty adrenaline flow over me. I really should have talked to someone. Having a preemie in the NICU and pumping around the clock certainly didn’t help with the mental stability. With #2, I didn’t have nearly as hard a time, though I was much more vigilant in case it happened again.

  28. Oh the stairs. I could picture myself…some how that’s not right, I could see flashes of myself as if in a movie…falling down the stairs with my baby and contorting myself to try to save him. I had similar "visions" of tripping and dropping him on concrete and trying to catch him or cushion his fall. I had an inner monologue talking to me the whole time telling myself it was okay, it wasn’t really going to happen, it was just my body and brains way of protecting us, reminding me to be a little more careful and think through how to prevent the worst from happening. We made it through fine, but it would have been easy to be paralyzed.

    I have a strict policy of not telling friends about my difficult pregnancy and birth, and instead only answering questions about my birth experience. However, I do tell them about my visions and how I thought I was going crazy so if it happens to them, they are not surprised.

  29. Oh my god I am so happy to hear I’m not alone in this. I was in a large earthquake while visiting my home country (which is prone to natural disasters,) and couldn’t get across the room to my baby son (who was fine because my husband was holding him.) The quake destroyed the city I grew up in, but as I lived in another country I didn’t think it’d have a huge impact on me. After the quake I was terrified of being away from him, and was eventually diagnosed with PND and post-traumatic stress and put on mild antidepressants. I’ve since moved back to my home country and had another baby (now 11 months old,) and now it’s the threat of a tsunami washing away my son that paralyses me. In my head I can see almost a split-screen, like a movie, with reality on one side and on the other this wave just washing over the land, through his preschool, and carrying him away. I’m back on mild anti-depressants but am now wondering if it’s hormones. Now I think about it the fear definitely got worse after I had my little girl.

  30. Another one with the stairs FF here. We live on the third floor of a walk up and have concrete stairs with metal edges. The fear was especially heightened when DS was first starting to walk, up until about 3 or even 4. I could always just imagine him falling back and smashing his head exactly on the edge of a step. It’s lessened now at 5.5, but it still comes back now and then. And then our back stairs are fire-escape type stairs with big holes in between. Envisioned him falling and then falling through the stairs, 20 feet right to the ground below. His getting bigger has helped that one disappear.

    And, I also had the FF of falling down the stairs while I was holding him as a baby. The crazy thing with that is that it actually did happen once when he was a few weeks old. I was in such a sleep deprived fog that I thought I was at the bottom step, but was a couple of steps from the bottom. As terrifying as it was, I managed to fall in a way that kept him more or less in the same position that I was holding him. Mama bear protective instincts kicked in and I somehow contorted my body so that I took the blow of the fall and he remained unscathed. So lucky. I had weird bruises all over the place (elbows, knees, thigh), but was just so glad he wasn’t hurt.

  31. My specific fear was of something falling on the baby. A picture hanging on the wall, a glass from a table, a pot plant, a light fixture… Etc. However, I don’t really think mine went away, but once I thought she was strong enough (by whose measure I don’t know!) I stopped worrying about that so much and moved on to other things! And I still do to an extent. That baby is about to turn 5 and she has a 2 year old brother. I always thought of it as mostly reasonable to be so anxious! Although I’ve always hated being fearful. I thought it was one of those things when you have kids – you are so keenly aware of mortality in a way you never were before and it’s like a bolt from the blue. I still feel that! However pointing it out as a specific thing I do see that the fear of things falling was more intense than my general every day worry.

  32. I have a vivid memory of sitting on the couch with a hot bowl of soup, sometime in the first week after my daughter was born. She was about 10 feet away in a pack ‘n play bassinet and I was PARALYZED by fear of throwing the bowl of soup on her. Oy. 🙂

  33. Oh my god, I thought this was just me for the longest time. It lasted until the baby was about 8 weeks? I kept thinking that somehow while I was nursing my son I would slam his soft spot into the corner of the dresser (next to the chair I nursed him in) at night. I was so, so happy when that darn spot closed up.

  34. YES – I also experienced these and also thought I was the only one. For me, it was also stairs and heights. I had horrible visions of the baby dropping from a high place, or of tumbling down the stairs. It got to the point where I couldn’t even look at my husband holding a baby close to a rail or a ledge. For me it was aggravated because I did fall down a very tall, narrow flight of stairs with my daughter when she was 18 months – we both fell, she was fine, I seriously damaged my hand, but am fine now. But I’m so relieved to know these are real and it wasn’t just me. I described it as instantly being thrown into a very dark place. There’s such relief in knowing that it’s common.

  35. Oh, God, this just showed up in a poem of mine. For me it was tripping next to the stair railing and tossing the baby over (we lived in a 2nd-floor Victorian flat with an interior staircase). The hormones definitely contribute – and now, 8 years later, I can go months without one of these moments. Still, they do come very occasionally, usually having to do with traffic accidents or drowning. I’ve gotten to the point where I can ID them, ride them out, and let them pass.

    One of the things that helps is reminding myself that we do what we can to prevent what we can prevent – safe car and carseat, swimming lessons, teaching him to reason and trust his instinct, etc. It also helps that the kid is long past the stage (0-2.5 or so) where his day job consisted of a 12-to-15-hour shift of throwing himself in the path of sharp objects, gumming chokeable items, and otherwise exploring the world.

  36. I had these until I weaned my son. I wish someone had told me about them because it really upset me and I wondered if I was crazy. I felt much better when I knew it had a name– post partum OCD– and that it was completely normal. Post partum OCD is characterized by intrusive negative thoughts about harm coming to your baby. It would keep me up at night. I still can’t watch Law & Order SVU because my mind still has the ability to reel off into those terrible "what if’s"… my son was born the day before the Sandusky case became public, and I spent many a nights staring at my baby and crying for all the children he hurt, crying for the mothers of those children, and terrified that I wouldn’t be able to protect my child against predators. Every horrible case of some stranger harming a child that I’d read about in my lifetime came back to me, and I would think… what if. I weaned my son when he was a little past 2, and it got MUCH better. I’m now pregnant with my second child, and it’s coming back. But it helps to know that it’s temporary. I’ve read a theory that it’s nature’s way of keeping your child safe (if you imagine every horrible scenario, you’re better equipped to avoid those scenarios). It helped me to envision a big STOP sign when I felt my mind spiraling into intrusive negative thoughts, and mentally telling myself, STOP. You never stop worrying. But it does get better!

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