managing the guilt

Growing a baby is complex.

Often, we go and have a baby without thinking about all the things that need to align for a healthy baby to be born forty weeks later. There are so many things we cannot control. Unexpected news or a prenatal diagnosis may come as a shock and it is not unusual for expectant parents to wonder if they did something wrong, if they caused the difference in their baby’s development or genetics.

Know that searching for reasons is a normal human experience when we are faced with uncertainty. We want to understand why this happened. How did this happen? Sometimes there aren’t clear answers, and without clear answers, expectant parents may blame themselves. They may second guess things, everything they ate or did in the lead-up to the diagnosis to identify the cause of the anomaly.

“If only I reduced my work hours, didn’t eat this, didn’t walk so far, didn’t …”

These are normal thought processes when faced with uncertainty, but they may also be unhelpful for your mood and wellbeing.

What is guilt? 

Guilt is an emotion that sits heavily in the body and is accompanied by negative thoughts about yourself. You may feel distressed or as if you have failed, or that your body has failed. It’s the feeling that you have done something wrong and can lead to feelings of anxiety, and shame, too.

When it comes to prenatal diagnosis you may think you have done something wrong, even when you haven’t. With a prenatal diagnosis, you may feel guilty about things that weren’t within your control, or feel guilty that you didn’t take action to prevent something that you had no way of predicting. There may be truly nothing you could have done differently to prevent the anomaly and yet you may experience strong feelings of regret, and guilt.

Guilt and self-blame can be complicated by societal and cultural norms. As a society, we have a habit of blaming mothers. Some cultural practices and beliefs also encourage the blame of mothers when things don’t go to plan.

While there are some actions hopeful and expectant parents can take to promote the health of their baby, even following every piece of advice doesn’t mean you are guaranteed a healthy baby or one without a difference or variation. In fact, some parents do all things that go against the advice and still have a baby without a diagnosis. Making babies is just so complex, yet as a society, we often overlook all that complexity and uncertainty and think we can control the outcome.

Some parents may feel they have reasons for the guilt. Perhaps the baby has an inherited genetic variant, perhaps the parents are older, perhaps a certain medication was taken, or an illness was caught. Some mothers may have cleaned the cat litter or consumed alcohol. The reality is, that life is complex. Sometimes, there is no one else to clean cat litter, sometimes illness can’t be avoided, and we carry genetic variants we don’t know about.

What we do know, is that guilt and self-blame can be consuming and unhelpful for coping and moving forward.



Signs of guilt

Signs you may be experiencing feelings of guilt include:

  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle tension and feeling “on edge”
  • Stomach upsets
  • Ruminating over details of the past
  • Fixating on a word or detail about the diagnosis as explained by the medical professional
  • Self-blame and negative thoughts about yourself

Feelings of guilt can also lead to anxiety, stress, difficulties sleeping, fatigue, difficulties with attention and concentration, withdrawal from loved ones and friends, and loss of interest in usual activities.



Coping with guilt

Here are some self-care strategies to help you cope with guilt and self-blame.

1. Express your feelings

Mixed emotions following unexpected news is normal. No matter how terrible your thoughts may seem, it can be helpful to share them with someone you trust. When you voice your thoughts, they have less power over you and there’s an opportunity to look at them with an objective perspective.

Guilt often remains hidden behind anxiety, physical tension or feelings of dread. When you acknowledge guilt exists, it can free you from the heavy feeling you’ve been carrying around.


2. Reframe your thoughts

If you find you’re focusing on negative thoughts, consider the situation from a different angle. Were there other factors that played a role in the diagnosis? If you were to share your thoughts with healthcare and medical professionals, your friends or loved ones, what would they say? Write a list of thoughts about why you feel you are to blame and then counter that list with reasons why you are not to blame.


3. Looking for meaning

Not having clear answers means that your mind may try to fill in the blanks by searching for answers in the past. You may believe there is something wrong with your body, or it was selfish to want another baby and believe this is the cause of the anomaly. It is a normal part of the grieving process to search for meaning and reasons why the anomaly occurred. Certainty makes us feel safe, uncertainty makes us feel out of control. Searching for answers and self-blame may help you feel more in control of the situation, even if the reasons are untrue.

Try looking for meaning in other ways such as telling yourself you have been presented with this challenge to grow and learn. If you have spiritual or religious connections, draw on these to help you navigate the path ahead.


4. Focus on what can be controlled

Guilt involves replaying the past, and thinking about what could have been changed, even if it was out of your control. When you experience unexpected news, it can bring up uncertainty about the future and perhaps more worries about “getting it wrong.”

Try to focus on each day as it comes and what is within your control. Focus on what you can do to care for yourself and your baby from today onwards. For example, eating regular healthy meals, getting plenty of rest, attending medical appointments, and preparing for your baby on both a practical (things you’ll need) and emotional level (linking with other parents, educating yourself about the condition and asking professionals to clarify things that remain unclear). When a worry arises, ask yourself: Is it in my control to fix it?


5. Talk to a professional

Persistent feelings of guilt associated with a prenatal diagnosis can have a serious impact on your overall well-being and can make it difficult to look toward or plan for the future. You may feel as though you don’t deserve to move on or be happy.

Excessive guilt may be an indicator of mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you are experiencing feelings of guilt and self-blame that are interfering with your daily life and causing distress, then you may benefit from speaking to a mental health professional.

There are different treatment options to help you navigate the prenatal diagnosis and the distressing thoughts and feelings that may accompany it. A professional can help you better understand your thoughts and emotions so you can prepare for the birth and parenting of a baby with an anomaly. You can find many options for professional and peer support on our Mental Health and Wellbeing page.

Final thoughts

Receiving a prenatal diagnosis is overwhelming and it is normal to seek reasons for the cause of the anomaly.

If you experience self-blame and guilt, you may be able to manage these feelings through the self-care strategies listed above. If you feel the guilt and self-blame are interfering with your daily life or getting in the way of bonding with your baby, we encourage you to seek specialised mental health support.

Our resources were collaboratively written by professionals and parents with lived experience of receiving a prenatal diagnosis. To learn more about the team behind this resource, please view:

Contributors Bios
Lauren Keegan
    Julia D'Orazio
      Pieta Shakes

        These resources are provided for information purposes only and should be read in accordance with the Resource Library disclaimer.

        If you or a loved one need support, speak to your care providers or see our Mental Health and Wellbeing page for contact information for urgent and/or ongoing support. 

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