Postpartum Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

The Basics of Postpartum Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Postpartum Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is not unlike 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. Plenty of treatment options are available for postpartum OCD so that women do not have to continue to suffer from this condition.

What is Postpartum OCD?

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

Women with postpartum OCD are aware of their intrusive thoughts but they cannot control them. Instead, the thoughts cause counteractive behaviors and other symptoms as well.

Who Does Postpartum OCD Affect?

Postpartum OCD affects anywhere between 3 to 5 percent 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 underdiagnosed. This is due to the embarrassment and shame that women with postpartum OCD feel and the fear they will lose their baby if they speak up. Therefore, many women don’t come forward about their OCD symptoms after giving birth and suffer silently.

Additionally, postpartum OCD symptoms are often confused with anxiety or depression, so it is often misdiagnosed. There is also limited awareness about postpartum OCD as its own unique condition. 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 postpartum OCD. Its onset has to do with the woman’s mental health history and other elements in her life.

The sudden and drastic hormone decreases after giving birth may contribute to certain postpartum OCD symptoms. These changes, combined with chronic fatigue and overwhelming feelings as they care for the new baby, can lead many women to develop severe anxiety that evolves into OCD.

Here are some possible risk factors for 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 with ongoing OCD before childbirth find that having a baby worsens their symptoms, as a new baby provides more uncertainties and responsibilities that can aggravate intrusive and anxious thoughts.

Postpartum OCD in men doesn’t share the same biological causes as postpartum OCD in women. Therefore, it is believed that a big 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 manifest as 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 physical, sexual, or otherwise.

Here are some of the common compulsions experienced by those with postpartum OCD:

  • 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 to 3 weeks after giving birth; however, they may not be noticed by the woman or her family until months later. Without treatment, postpartum OCD symptoms can evolve and worsen and may not go away independently.

Postpartum OCD Treatment

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

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and other forms of psychotherapy help people work through their intrusive thoughts in a safe and non-judgmental environment. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals are trained to understand mental health issues and teach coping skills to improve the quality of life.

Physicians and psychiatrists will likely also suggest a course of medications such as antidepressants, specifically SSRIs. Antipsychotic medications may also stop obsessive and compulsive thoughts from taking over the mind. Anti-anxiety medications called benzodiazepines are also effective at immediately relieving the nervous energy and fears associated with postpartum OCD symptoms. Team
Reviewed by:Kimberly Langdon M.D.

Medical Editor

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Kimberly Langdon is a Doctor of Medicine and graduated from The Ohio State University in 1991. She completed her residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology at The Ohio State University Hospitals, Department of OB/GYN. Board-Certified in 1997, she is now retired from clinical practice after a long and successful career. Currently, she is the Founder and Chief Medical Officer of a Medical Device Company that is introducing patented products to treat vaginal microbial infections without the need for drugs. She is an expert in Vaginal Infections, Menstrual disorders, Menopause, and Contraception.

Written by:

Jenna Carberg was diagnosed with postpartum depression following the birth of her daughter in 2016. It was a healthy birth but in the following days, Jenna's mood changed quickly. Doctors suggested that it might be the "baby blues", but her husband Chris suggested she seek a second opinion. Jenna was diagnosed with postpartum depression and began a journey that lasted 9 long months with significant ups and downs. Jenna's mental health care and her experiences became a passion for her to share with the world. She and her husband Chris founded as a support website designed to help women suffering in silence and their loved ones.

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