Postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a type of perinatal anxiety disorder that can develop after a woman gives birth. Women with this condition experience obsessive thoughts that are difficult to control and engage in compulsive behaviors to help relieve the anxiety caused by the obsessions. While postpartum OCD can be distressing for new mothers, it is treatable with medication, therapy, and self-care.
What Is Postpartum OCD?
Obsessive-compulsive disorders affect around 2 to 3% of the population.1 OCD involves intrusive, hard to control thoughts that are distressing.2 People may try to ignore the obsessions or engage in certain acts, rituals, or behaviors called compulsions to help cope. Obsessions come in many forms, but common themes include fear of contamination, fear or harm to self or others, and thoughts about order, symmetry, sex, or religion.
Common compulsions include the following:
- Repeating prayers or affirmations
- Seeking reassurance from other people
Around half of postpartum women experience intrusive thoughts.3 However, only a portion of these women’s symptoms are severe enough to be considered OCD. The most common obsessions are about germs, contamination, and harm coming to the baby, either accidentally or on purpose.4 For example, a woman may have thoughts about dropping the baby or fear that the baby could stop breathing. In response, she may repeatedly clean, check, avoid certain places or situations, and/or try to suppress those thoughts. A key feature of postpartum OCD is that women find their obsessions to be upsetting and scary.
OCD tends to develop in response to stress.4 Giving birth and becoming a parent is a stressful experience, which explains why new mothers are at increased risk of developing OCD. Certain women may be at higher risk of developing OCD after giving birth, especially those with a history of OCD or other anxiety disorders.1
How is Perinatal OCD different from OCD that occurs at other times?
Perinatal OCD and OCD that develops at other points in a person’s lifetime share the same symptoms, including the presence of obsessive thoughts and/or compulsive behaviors.5 The main difference is when symptoms begin. For a woman to be diagnosed with postpartum OCD, the symptoms must develop or worsen during the postpartum period (any point within a year of giving birth).
One difference that has been found between postpartum OCD and OCD that occurs at other times is that women with postpartum OCD are more likely to have obsessions surrounding harm to their babies. This can include obsessive thoughts or images of dropping or poisoning the baby. Women with postpartum OCD may also experience other types of obsessions, such as those involving cleanliness, order, or religion.
How Long Does Postpartum OCD Last?
Postpartum OCD typically develops within two to four weeks of giving birth.1 There is no specific timeline for how long postpartum OCD may last. For some women, symptoms begin shortly after giving birth. Other women may experience OCD during pregnancy or before getting pregnant, but find that their symptoms become worse after delivery. Postpartum OCD may not go away on its own. Treatment, including therapy and medication, may be needed to recover from this condition.
Postpartum OCD Symptoms
Postpartum OCD occurs when OCD symptoms either develop or worsen shortly after giving birth. Women are at increased risk of developing this condition during the postpartum period. These symptoms are often, but not always, associated with the new baby. For most women, symptoms begin within 4 weeks of delivery.1
Signs and symptoms of postpartum OCD include:2
- Obsessions: Distressing thoughts or urges that cause anxiety. A person with OCD copes by either trying to ignore or neutralize the obsessions in some way.
- Compulsions: Repetitive behaviors or acts that the person feels compelled to do to alleviate the anxiety caused by obsessions. They are often time-consuming (more than one hour a day).
In order to be diagnosed with OCD, a person’s symptoms must negatively affect several different areas of their life, like school, work, and their relationships.
Will obsessions about violence or sex lead me to harm my baby?
Obsessive thoughts, especially those about violence, sex, or harm coming to your baby, can be very distressing. However, these thoughts will not cause you to harm your baby. Experts agree that women dealing with postpartum OCD are not at risk of harming their babies.6 In fact, the fact that you find the thoughts upsetting is a sign that you are dealing with postpartum OCD. You are not “going crazy” or a terrible mother. Getting properly diagnosed and treated can help you manage these thoughts and recover from postpartum OCD.
Are Postpartum OCD and Postpartum Depression Related?
Some people confuse postpartum OCD for postpartum depression, but they are distinct disorders. Postpartum depression is a mood disorder, while postpartum OCD is an anxiety disorder that involves intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors that are difficult to control.
Postpartum OCD is one type of perinatal mood and anxiety disorder (PMAD), a class of mental health conditions that affect new and expecting mothers. Postpartum depression is another type of PMAD that involves sadness, loss of interest in things, feelings of guilt and worthlessness, changes in sleep and appetite, difficulty concentrating, low energy, postpartum rage, and in severe cases, suicidal thoughts.7
Postpartum depression and comorbid OCD often co-occur together, meaning women suffer from both disorders at the same time.1 In fact, postpartum depression is the most common mental health disorder to occur alongside postpartum OCD. Women with both disorders experience obsessions, compulsions, and depression that significantly interfere with their lives.
Postpartum OCD vs Postpartum Psychosis
Postpartum psychosis is another type of mental health disorder that can develop after giving birth.1 It involves different types of disturbing thoughts, called delusions, also known as false beliefs or ideas that the individual perceives as true. For example, a woman may believe that her baby is possessed by a demon.
Unlike women with postpartum OCD, women with postpartum psychosis are not distressed by their thoughts and beliefs, which increases their risk of acting on them. In some cases this can lead to women harming themselves or their babies. A woman experiencing postpartum psychosis requires immediate treatment and hospitalization. If you have concerns that someone you know is experiencing postpartum psychosis, seek help right away.
What Causes Postpartum OCD?
The exact causes of postpartum OCD are unknown, but researchers believe that it is likely caused by a combination of different factors, including hormonal shifts that occur post-delivery, the stress of caring for a newborn baby, genetics, and structural brain differences.
Common causes of postpartum OCD include:
- Hormonal changes: Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for regulating mood and emotions. Low levels of serotonin are linked to postpartum OCD. During the postpartum period, estrogen and progesterone levels decrease dramatically, which affects serotonin levels. These hormonal shifts are believed to play a role in the development of postpartum OCD.1
- Psychological stress: Caring for a newborn and adjusting to parenthood causes significant stress. New parents are also faced with sleep deprivation and little time to care for themselves. This increase in stress is another contributing factor to postpartum OCD.1
- Genetics: Family and twin studies of OCD show that there is a strong genetic link when it comes to this disorder. Having a family member with OCD, especially a close relative like a parent or sibling, significantly increases the risk.8
- Differences in brain structure: Studies of people with OCD show differences in brain structure, including reduced gray matter in certain parts of the brain and lower amygdala volume.9
Risk Factors That Increase Likelihood of Postpartum OCD
Some experiences may increase the likelihood of a woman developing postpartum OCD, including having a history of OCD during pregnancy or prior to pregnancy.1 Women with a history of depression, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, and avoidant personality disorder are also at higher risk.9
Postpartum OCD is associated with a family history of mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder, as well as substance use disorders. Other factors that may increase the risk of developing this condition include a history of miscarriage(s), first birth of a child, and experiencing complications during pregnancy or delivery.
What Are the Effects of Perinatal OCD?
Postpartum OCD can be very distressing for the mother and can affect how a mother feels about herself and bonds with her baby. Women with this condition are more likely to have marital problems and feel less confident in themselves. One study found that women with postpartum OCD responded less sensitively to their infants than mothers without OCD.10
Women with postpartum OCD are also more likely to experience postpartum depression (PPD). PPD can affect the mother/infant bond and is associated with cognitive and emotional problems as the child grows older.11 It is important to note that these studies looked at untreated postpartum conditions. If you’re experiencing postpartum OCD, getting treated can help you recover and reduce the likelihood of negative outcomes.
Can Postpartum OCD Be Prevented?
Attending all your postpartum appointments and sharing your concerns with your healthcare provider is important. Many providers schedule the first postpartum appointment six weeks after delivery, but symptoms of OCD or other PMADs can develop and worsen during this time. If you are experiencing distress, reach out sooner and request an earlier appointment.
Self-care is also an important component of preventing postpartum OCD. Be sure to take care of yourself by eating well, exercising (if approved by your healthcare provider), and getting enough rest. Sleep can be especially difficult while caring for a newborn baby, so consider asking your partner or a friend or family member to cover a night feeding so you can get a longer stretch of sleep, and try to sleep or rest during the day when possible. If you find that you are continuing to struggle with sleep, then you may be dealing with insomnia. Be sure to discuss this with your healthcare provider.
When & How to Get Help For Postpartum OCD
Seek help for postpartum OCD as soon as you recognize symptoms. Waiting can lead to the condition worsening, so it is important to reach out as soon as you notice intrusive thoughts. Untreated OCD can affect how you function in many different areas of your life, and it can also negatively impact your ability to care for yourself and bond with your baby.
Who to Talk to
If you think that you are struggling with postpartum OCD, bring up your concerns with your OB/GYN, midwife, or other healthcare provider. They can assess your symptoms and provide you with a referral for treatment if needed. You can also seek help from a mental health professional, like a psychologist, therapist, psychiatrist, or psychiatric nurse practitioner. They will be able to evaluate your symptoms and discuss treatment options. A simple way of finding a mental health professional in your area is by using an online therapist directory.
Postpartum OCD Treatment
There are several different types of treatment that can help you recover from postpartum OCD. Therapy and self-care are usually the first lines of treatment for this condition, especially for women who are breastfeeding. In some cases, medication and hormone therapy may also be helpful in combination with therapy and self-care strategies.
Therapy is an effective and widely used treatment for postpartum OCD. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy recommended for this condition.1,12 There are two primary focuses of CBT for OCD: Changing negative thinking patterns associated with obsessions and reducing compulsive behaviors through exposure and response prevention (ERP). ERP teaches people how to face anxiety-provoking thoughts, objects, and situations (such as the fear of dropping one’s baby) without resorting to rituals to alleviate the anxiety. Over time people learn to tolerate the anxiety caused by the intrusive thoughts and gradually stop their compulsive behaviors.
Women with postpartum OCD may benefit from individual and/or couples therapy. Couples therapy can be helpful in educating people and their families about postpartum OCD.12 Women with this condition may feel ashamed or guilty for feeling the way that they do. By understanding their condition and sharing their experiences with a professional, they can learn to cope more effectively with their symptoms.
Medication is often recommended for moderate to severe postpartum OCD. Studies show that selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), like sertraline, fluoxetine, and paroxetine, are effective in treating this condition.1 They work by preventing the reuptake of serotonin, which increases the amount of it available in the brain. In some cases, other medications, like venlafaxine or quetiapine, may also be added to help enhance the effects of SSRIs.12
People with OCD often require larger doses of medications than individuals with depression or other types of anxiety disorders.1 The dose is typically increased gradually over time to help minimize side effects. It is recommended that people with OCD continue taking medication for at least a year after remission to help prevent a relapse of symptoms.
Some women with postpartum OCD have concerns about taking medication while breastfeeding. Research shows that most antidepressants are excreted in only small amounts in breast milk and do not have negative effects on the infant.12 If you are considering medication for your postpartum OCD, a psychiatrist or psychiatric nurse practitioner can discuss the pros, cons, and safety of it with you.
Hormone therapy may be used as a treatment for postpartum OCD.1 Research shows that there is a link between postpartum mood disorders and low estrogen levels. Some women with postpartum depression and psychosis have been successfully treated with the hormone estradiol and professionals believe that the same may be true for individuals with postpartum OCD.
Self-care is another important component of recovering from postpartum OCD. Getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, and connecting with a support network may not cure your OCD, but these actions, combined with treatment, can help you get better. It can be challenging to find time for yourself as you care for a newborn baby, but doing these things can help improve your emotional well-being and your ability to be a more present mother.
Do’s & Don’ts for Postpartum OCD
If you are experiencing postpartum OCD, there are some actions that you can take to help support yourself in the road to recovery.
Here are five things to do:
- Remember that you are not alone. Nearly half of postpartum women deal with intrusive thoughts.
- Share how you are feeling with someone that you trust, whether it is a friend, family member, or therapist.
- Find positive outlets for your stress and anxiety, like exercise and meditation.
- Eat a healthy diet consisting of proteins, complex carbohydrates, fruits, and vegetables. Minimize sugar, caffeine, and alcohol.
- Be patient. Recovery from mental health disorders like OCD takes time.
Here are three things not to do:
- Judge yourself for what you are experiencing. You are not a bad mother or person for struggling with OCD.
- Turn to drugs, alcohol, or other addictive behaviors to help cope with your feelings. These activities may reduce your symptoms in the short-term, but will cause more long-term problems.
- Isolate. If you are struggling with postpartum OCD, reach out for help and get the support that you need.
How to Support a Partner or Loved One
It can be difficult to see a loved one struggling with postpartum OCD. If someone you care about is showing signs of this condition, there are ways that you can help support them. The first step is sharing your concerns in a gentle, non-judgmental manner. You can do this by stating something like “I’ve noticed you doing more repetitive things lately and you seem very stressed.” Women with postpartum OCD are usually distressed by their symptoms, so if she feels supported she may open up about what she is experiencing.
Once you have an open dialogue with your loved one, you can introduce the idea of getting help. You might share that you’ve done some research on postpartum OCD and learned that it is a treatable condition. If they’re open to it, you can share some resources or offer to help them find a provider. You may even offer to help bring them to the appointment, sit with them while they make phone calls, or watch the baby. If your loved one is not ready to get help, do not force it. Trying to force someone into treatment doesn’t work. Instead, respect their position and let them know that you’re there to help if they change their mind in the future.
Final Thoughts on Dealing With Postpartum OCD
Women with postpartum OCD experience distressing obsessions and compulsions that negatively affect their lives. Certain factors, such as having a family history or experiencing a difficult delivery, can increase the likelihood of developing postpartum OCD. While there are ways to prevent or alleviate some of the symptoms of postpartum OCD, most women will need treatment to get better. Medication, therapy, and self-care are the most effective ways to recover.