Driven to the edge by a crying baby? Here’s help

Thousands of mothers battle in silence with thoughts of harming their little ones – so what are the warning signs and where can you find help?


Tiredness and trauma are often hallmarks of the first few years of parenting, but is it normal to want to hurt your baby? The uncomfortable truth, say experts, is that many of us face this temptation and feel heavy with guilt because of it. The tragic part is that some parents buckle – and babies are harmed.

“Many things can trigger the anger that often precedes thoughts of abusing or actual abuse,” says clinical social worker Orli Zaacks of The Anxiety and Trauma Clinic. “It can happen when a baby has colic and has been crying for hours. It can happen when a baby refuses to stay in his bed at night. Sometimes it happens when a baby throws a tantrum, won’t stop screaming and the noise fills the parent’s head until the parent feels overwhelmed.”

ALSO SEE: 4 strategies to soothe a crying baby

Factors that may contribute to the likelihood of physical harm:

1. Isolation and lack of support

No help with the demands of parenting, such as extended family, friends, a partner or community support.

2. Stress

Financial pressures, job worries, medical problems or taking care of a family member with a disability can increase stress and overwhelm parents.

3. Unrealistic expectations

A lack of understanding a child’s development stages and behaviour.

ALSO SEE: Understanding your baby’s changing and emotional needs

4. Lack of parenting skills

Not knowing how to help children learn, grow and behave in a positive way.

5. Drug and alcohol problems

Addiction or substance abuse may limit parents’ abilities to meet their baby’s needs.

6. Low self-esteem and self-confidence

Sometimes insecure parents doubt their ability to meet a baby’s needs and do not seek help and support.

7. Poor childhood experience

This includes intergenerational patterns of abuse.

Warning signs

Be aware of the signs that you or another parent are reaching your limit and may feel compelled to physically harm your child. Problem areas include:

  • Alcohol or substance abuse
  • Mental or emotional problems
  • An absence of visible love or concern
  • Constant references to how life used to be before the baby – the insinuation being the longing to return to those days
  • Feelings of resentment and finding the responsibility of having a baby both daunting and overwhelming
  • Saying that having a baby was a terrible mistake
  • Showing no interest in the baby.

While these signs don’t necessarily mean that a mom will physically harm her baby, they do indicate that things are not as they should be and that help is necessary.

What to do when you’re in trouble

Unfortunately, parents often refuse to admit they’re not coping. Guilt and societal pressure to be “perfect’ can take their toll on a new parent who doesn’t realise that sleep deprivation, depression or negative external circumstances are good enough reasons to seek professional help or at least some sort of regular support.

These helpful tips can help you avoid the “danger zone”:

  • Remove yourself from the situation by placing your baby in his cot or handing him to a reliable, trusted caregiver.
  • Make yourself a cup of tea and take a deep breath. Only go back to your baby’s room or fetch him from the caregiver once you feel in control again. Even if this means leaving your baby to scream, you know that he is safer without you at this point.
  • Walking in the garden, phoning a friend, listening to calming music and acknowledging that you are not coping and therefore need help are good steps.
  • Taking calming herbal drops can be useful.

ALSO SEE: 3 ways to soothe yourself when baby is crying

Advice for more dangerous situations

 Orli says that every situation is different, with some more dangerous than others and need immediate intervention. Ideas that have worked for parents in the long run include:

  • Asking for help in advance from someone you trust. Let that person hold you accountable. When you feel like hurting your baby, call that person.
  • Watch for signs that you’re reaching your limit.
  • Ask yourself, “Am I really angry at my baby or is the anger stemming from another unhappy situation in my life?” Toxic relationships could be bringing you down.
  • Take care of yourself. Get enough sleep, eat healthily and drink lots of water.

*This article was originally published in the February 2010 issue of Living and Loving. Written by Angela Barry

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