Postpartum Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

The Basics of Postpartum Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Postpartum Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is not unlike the type of OCD that anyone else may experience, however, its symptoms involve the mother’s thoughts and behaviors specifically towards or about her newborn.

Though the recorded rate of postpartum OCD is relatively low, it is a very serious condition that should be diagnosed as early as possible. There are plenty of treatment options available for postpartum OCD so that women do not have to continue to suffer from the horrors of this condition.

What is Postpartum OCD?

Postpartum OCD is one type of postpartum anxiety disorder. It is a severe clinical diagnosis that requires treatment in order to manage and control symptoms. Postpartum OCD is characterized by constant and repetitive thoughts and behaviors that are in response to a perceived danger towards their baby. These thoughts and behaviors are intrusive and they can severely disrupt daily life.

Women with postpartum OCD are aware of their obsessive and compulsive thoughts but they cannot control them. Instead, the thoughts and behaviors control the mother which causes a spiral of other symptoms as well.

Who Does Postpartum OCD Affect?

Postpartum OCD affects anywhere between 3%-5% of women after giving birth. New fathers have also been known to exhibit signs of postpartum OCD. Though not common like postpartum blues, postpartum OCD is likely severely underdiagnosed. This is due to the embarrassment and shame that women with postpartum OCD feel and the fears they have that their baby will be taken away if they report their symptoms. Therefore, many women don’t come forward about their OCD symptoms after giving birth and so their suffering remains silent.

Additionally, postpartum OCD symptoms are often confused with anxiety or depression and so it is frequently misdiagnosed as postpartum depression or anxiety. There is also limited awareness about postpartum OCD as its own unique condition and therefore this lack of awareness prevents reporting and diagnoses.

Postpartum OCD Causes and Risk Factors

Like most mental health conditions, there is no one exact cause of developing postpartum OCD. Who develops it and how is often very individual and has a lot to do with the woman’s background and other elements in her life.

Sudden and drastic decreases in hormones after giving birth are thought to contribute to certain  postpartum OCD symptoms. These biological changes combined with chronic fatigue and the overwhelm experienced in taking on new responsibilities with their baby, can lead many women to develop severe anxiety which manifests itself in the form of OCD.

Here are some possible risk factors of developing postpartum OCD:

  • A history of OCD at other times in life
  • Unmet expectations regarding motherhood that cause negative thoughts and self-doubt

Many women who have existing cases of OCD find that having a baby worsens their symptoms. This is due to the fact that having a new baby provides more sets of uncertainties and responsibilities that can aggravate intrusive and anxious thoughts.

Postpartum OCD specifically for men doesn’t have the same biological cause that is does in the case of women with this condition. Therefore, it is believed that a large contributing  factor to developing postpartum OCD is the natural fear and anxiety that comes with the pressure and responsibility of caring for an infant.

Postpartum OCD Symptoms

Postpartum OCD symptoms include a combination of obsessions and compulsions. These can be in thoughts and behaviors.

Here are some of the common obsessions mothers with postpartum OCD will experience:

  • Unwanted images of hurting the baby such as dropping or throwing him/her
  • Concerns about accidentally causing the baby harm through carelessness
  • Intrusive and unwanted thoughts of suffocating or stabbing the baby
  • Unwanted and disturbing thoughts of sexually abusing the baby
  • Scared of making poor decisions that will cause the baby harm or death
  • Fear that the baby will develop a serious disease
  • Fear of exposing the baby to toxins and chemicals and other environmental pollutants

It’s important to note that mothers who suffer from postpartum OCD are hyper vigilant and sensitive to anything that may be related to child abuse whether is physical, sexual or otherwise.

Here are some of the common compulsions experienced in postpartum OCD sufferers:

  • Getting rid of sharp objects such as knives or scissors
  • Not feeding the baby out of fear of poisoning him/her
  • Not changing diapers out of fear of sexually abusing the baby
  • Not consuming certain foods or medications out of fear of harming the baby
  • Deliberately avoiding watching or reading the news when it involves child abuse
  • Continuously monitoring self when it comes to possible inappropriate sexual thoughts
  • Obsessively checking the baby while he/she sleeps
  • Asking family members for reassurance that the baby has not been harmed or abused
  • Going over the day’s events mentally to ensure that nothing bad has happened to the baby

Postpartum OCD symptoms typically start showing up in the first 2-3 weeks after giving birth. But they may not be noticeable or register with the woman or her family for months after giving birth. Without treatment, postpartum OCD symptoms can evolve and worsen and may not go away on their own.

Postpartum OCD Treatment

Postpartum OCD treatment is available to new mothers  and fathers struggling with this terrible condition. Treatment options usually require a combination of medication and therapy in order to fully manage symptoms and help the person to cope.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and other forms of psychotherapy can help parents discuss their intrusive thoughts in a safe and non-judgemental environment. Psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals are trained in understanding mental health issues and can provide coping skills to improve the quality of life.

Physicians and psychiatrists will likely also suggest pursuing a course of medications such as antidepressants, specifically SSRIs. Antipsychotic medications may also be helpful in stopping the obsessive and compulsive thoughts from taking over the mind. Antianxiety medications called benzodiazepines are also effective at immediately providing relief of severe nervous energy and fears associated with postpartum OCD symptoms.