In recent years, concern of and research into mental health of the postpartum period (the time span following the birth of a child) has increased. “Pregnancy throws your mood-regulating system into the air. This is a biochemical experience and a major life transition,” says Liz Torres, a psychologist at McLean Hospital (Restivo, 2012). The two postpartum illnesses garnering the most attention include postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis. As these illnesses are becoming more well-known to the public, the focus has increased on postpartum anxiety disorders, including postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Although there have been no large-scale studies on mothers with postpartum OCD, small-scale studies have shown a higher than expected percentage of women experiencing symptoms of OCD around the time of giving birth. Postpartum OCD is rare and affects approximately 3% of childbearing women (Abramowitz, 2014). The obsessions usually relate to the child and include fear the baby will be unhealthy, the mother will drop the baby, or the baby will die in their sleep. To prevent these events, they may compulsively pray, check up on their baby, avoid contact with their child, or ask others to affirm they will not harm their child.
Most new mothers worry about the wellbeing of their child. Thus, new mothers with OCD are unlikely to misinterpret this worry as more than just “motherly instincts” or being cautious. For example, a mother may constantly worry about dropping their child and will see this as something which can potentially happen and will be extra careful as a result. Those with postpartum OCD may interpret this as an unconscious desire to intentionally harm the infant and may take precautions to avoid this by staying away from their baby (Angeles, 2016).
Some experts suspect the cause of postpartum OCD is associated with a surge of hormones released by the brain during pregnancy and birth. A history of stress in the marriage or a difficult delivery can all contribute to the condition. While a family history of anxiety or mood disorders places women at greater risk of developing postpartum OCD, the condition can also occur in women who had no prior risks of OCD.
Becoming a parent is a major change in one’s life, causing a mix of emotions including happiness, anxiousness, excitement, and worry. Liz Torres says one of her main concerns with postpartum OCD is that women feel too embarrassed to talk about it. “A lot of women will tell [physicians] of their OCD thoughts. The problem is that women don’t tell each other about it.” Dr. Lee Cohen, director of the Perinatal and Reproductive Psychiatry Clinical Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, extends the reasoning for women’s silence on the issue: “Unfortunately, women are very reluctant to reveal those symptoms because they’re fearful that [child welfare] is going to be at their door taking their baby away. So this is a disorder in which patients suffer in silence.”
It is common for women, especially new parents, to fear their child may get hurt. It is important that we identify the problem afflicting women with postpartum OCD and get them the help they need. It is also important to assure them that their feelings of concern are natural so they feel free to open up and discuss their thoughts. Jerilynn Ross, president and CEO of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, has advice to those who know someone struggling with postpartum OCD: “If she’s having those feelings at all, she should talk to a professional. If, for no other reason, to tell [the women] that it’s OK.”(Restivo, 2012).
Abramowitz, J. (2014, November 18). Beyond the Blues: Postpartum OCD. Retrieved April 22, 2017, from https://iocdf.org/expert-opinions/postpartum-ocd/
Angeles, O. C. (2016). Perinatal / Postpartum OCD – Symptoms And Treatment. Retrieved April 23, 2017, from http://ocdla.com/postpartum-ocd
McGrath, P. (2013, July 10). Postpartum OCD. Retrieved April 23, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/dont-try-harder-try-different/201307/postpartum-ocd
Restivo, J. (2002, January 23). Postpartum Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Retrieved April 23, 2017, from http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=117022&page=1