It is a common experience for new mothers to experience intrusive thoughts and anxiety, as well as to engage in protective behaviors related to their babies. In fact, some anxiety is adaptive with regard to protecting the baby from potential harm. This anxiety typically is temporary and does not interfere with daily functioning or a mother’s ability to care for the baby. Some mothers, however, experience more significant symptoms associated with postpartum OCD, which are impairing and may interfere with daily functioning. Such OCD symptoms sometimes occur immediately after the birth of a baby and at times do not appear until later in the year after a woman gives birth. Postpartum OCD is present in about 2 to 3% of all mothers. Rates of postpartum OCD are higher among women who had an OCD diagnosis prior to giving birth.
Postpartum OCD can involve a myriad of obsessions and compulsions, but most commonly involves contamination, scrupulosity, aggressive thoughts, and other unacceptable thoughts. Intrusive thoughts most typically are centered around the baby and involve intentional harming the baby or accidentally allowing harm to come to the baby. Some examples include:
- If I do not wash my hands after I eat, I will contaminate my baby.
- If I don’t pray correctly, my baby will be harmed.
- When I changed my baby’s diaper, did I touch her inappropriately?
- What if I impulsively try to drown or hurt my baby?
These thoughts are very distressing and commonly lead to excessive ritualizing and avoidance behaviors. Some examples include:
- Excessive cleaning and washing rituals to prevent contamination spreading to the baby
- Excessive praying to ensure the baby’s safety
- Excessive checking to make sure the baby is ok
- Asking family members for reassurance that the baby is ok
Treatment for Postpartum OCD:
If untreated, women who experience postpartum OCD may have difficulty bonding with their babies due to avoidance and ritualizing. Untreated symptoms furthermore may impact relationships with other family members, who may be frustrated by involvement in rituals, such as providing reassurance and taking on extra responsibilities.
The treatment for postpartum OCD is Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), the gold standard in OCD treatment. Treatment with medication may also be beneficial as an adjunct to ERP.
DISCLAIMER: The content found here is intended to serve as educational content and is not intended to replace therapy. For treatment-related questions, please be sure to work with your local provider or contact a local clinician.