UBC research is working to end the stigma of intrusive thoughts for new parents

Dr. Nichole Fairbrother’s Perinatal Anxiety Research (PAR) lab is committed to improving the mental health and well-being of pregnant and postpartum people through an in-depth investigation of mood and related disorders.

The PAR lab was born from Fairbrother’s interest in reproduction and childbirth, and her experience with women’s health gained as a PhD student researching sexual assault-related trauma in female university students. Fairbrother’s career spans her role as a clinical associate professor in the department of psychiatry, an affiliate investigator at BC Children’s Hospital and a registered psychologist.

Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders may affect up to 21 per cent of pregnant and postpartum people, where perinatal refers to the period from pregnancy to shortly after birth. Much of the anxiety perinatal people experience is oriented around their infant, said Fairbrother.

“Will my baby be okay? Will my pregnancy go okay? Once the baby’s born, will they be safe?” she said.

One in five perinatal people experiences one or more anxiety disorders — which Fairbrother highlighted is more than any other disorder category.

One of the most common concerns reported by new mothers is unwanted, intrusive thoughts about infant-related harm. While half of the new mothers reported unwanted, intrusive thoughts about harming their baby on purpose and “the vast majority” experience intrusive thoughts about accidental harm, it is still treated as a taboo topic.

“We know that these thoughts [of harming your infant] are not associated with an increased risk of harming your infant. So if we look at two studies, a tiny proportion of people will behave in a physically aggressive way towards their infant, about 2.6-3 per cent,” said Fairbrother.

Speculations have been made about the origins of these thoughts. The PAR lab theorizes that it could be associated with evolution, where people evolved to be hyperaware of threats as new parents and that these thoughts helped them stay alert.

Research from the PAR lab has added to the literature showing an increased risk of developing obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) during and after birth. Their work showed new mothers with OCD were no more likely to report aggressive behaviour toward their babies those people who did not have OCD.

Fairbrother is a certified cognitive behavioral therapist (CBT) and CBT is integral to her treatment of postpartum anxiety and OCD since perinatal people tend to prefer talk therapy to medications.

In addition to research on intrusive thoughts, Fairbrother’s PAR lab is also assessing the accuracy of screening tools for diagnosing OCD in pregnant and postpartum persons, for which she was awarded the Health Professional Investigator Award by Michael Smith Health Research BC.

Fairbrother’s lab is striving toward the betterment of maternity care, with consideration given to how her research can help inform physicians and healthcare practitioners.

“We’re in the process of trying to understand what do maternity care providers know and not know about these kinds of thoughts so that we can develop educational materials and training materials for perinatal care providers,” she said.

“Helping people have positive birth experiences really matters.”

This article is part of The Ubyssey's neuroscience supplement, Big Brain Time. Pick up our latest print issue on campus to read the full supplement.