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


The Perinatal Anxiety Research (PAR) laboratory of Dr. Nichole Fairbrother 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 grew out of Fairbrother’s interest in reproduction and childbirth, and her experience with women’s health gained as a doctoral student researching trauma related to sexual assault in college students. Fairbrother’s career spans her role as clinical associate professor in the department of psychiatry, research affiliate at BC Children’s Hospital, and registered psychologist.

Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders may affect up to 21% of pregnant and postpartum people, with perinatal being the period from pregnancy to shortly after birth. Much of the anxiety people experience in the perinatal period is focused on the baby, Fairbrother said.

“Will my baby be okay? Will my pregnancy go well? After the baby is born, will they be safe? she said.

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

One of the most common concerns reported by new mothers is unwanted and intrusive thoughts about harm related to the baby. Although half of new mothers reported unwanted and intrusive thoughts about hurting their baby on purpose and “the vast majority” have intrusive thoughts about accidental harm, this is still treated as taboo.

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

Speculation has been made about the origins of these thoughts. The PAR lab theorizes that this could be linked to evolution, where people evolved to be hyper-aware of threats like new parents, and that these thoughts helped them stay alert.

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

Fairbrother is a Certified Cognitive Behavioral Therapist (CBT) and CBT is an integral part of her postpartum anxiety and OCD treatment, as perinatal people tend to prefer talk therapy over medication.

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

Fairbrother’s lab is striving to improve maternity care by considering how its research can help inform physicians and healthcare professionals.

“We’re trying to understand what healthcare professionals know and don’t know about this type of thinking so that we can develop educational and training materials for perinatal care professionals,” she said.

“Helping people have positive birth experiences is really important.”

This article is part The Ubysseyfrom the neuroscience supplement, Big Brain Time. Pick up our latest print edition on campus to read the full supplement.

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

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