The baby blues are a very, very real thing. So is postpartum depression, which is more than just a little case of new mom sadness. Postpartum depression (PPD) can lead to feelings of inadequacy, cause a lack of bonding between mom and baby, and even self-harm, harm to the child, or suicide. Luckily, awareness of the topic in recent years has increased and there’s even a center focused solely on perinatal mood disorders.
A lesser known effect of new motherhood is the onset of anxiety disorders like obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Just like the baby blues doesn’t always equal full blown PPD, a desire to be neat and tidy or upset when you’re house is a mess doesn’t mean OCD.
Only 2-3% of people suffer from OCD, but a new study in The Journal of Reproductive Medicine has shown 11% of new moms experience these symptoms. Postpartum OCD tends to come on rapidly and is often centered around a new mom’s obsessive thoughts about accidently hurting her baby or undesirable thoughts of intentionally causing harm to her baby. These repetitive and intrusive thoughts can include things about worry the baby could die in her sleep or choking and not being able to save her, or they could include thoughts of dropping, shaking, yelling, or drowning the baby. Most women with postpartum OCD do not actually act on these thoughts, meaning they resist the thoughts even though the are obsessive.
That’s the “obsessive” side of OCD: thoughts the postpartum mother can’t get rid of or doesn’t want to have. The “compulsive” side is constantly checking on the baby during the night, praying over and over, and continuously looking up “symptoms” on the internet.
If you’re thinking these sound like normal new parent behaviors, you’re right, they are. A main difference here is that these behaviors interfere with normal life.
The exact cause of postpartum OCD is unknown. One thought is that it’s an effect of hormonal changes during pregnancy, particularly oxytocin and progesterone. Another theory is that it’s normal new parent thoughts taken to a heightened level due to the sudden onset of responsibility. Meaning negative thoughts about your baby is normal, but people experience postpartum OCD don’t accept that.
So what can new moms do if they’re experiencing symptoms of postpartum OCD? Get treatment! Treatment for postpartum OCD is the same as traditional OCD: medication and talk therapy. Specifically, serotonin reuptake inhibitors (the same medication used to treat some depression) and cognitive behavioral therapy are effective in treating the disorder. It’s not yet known what the effects of medications may be on a breastfeeding baby. Although it’s important for mothers to get the help they need, doctors caution against using medication to unnecessarily treat normal behavior and feelings.
The previously cited study also found that half of the moms with postpartum OCD had improved by 6 months, although some moms we’re just beginning the onset at that time. Approximately 75% of moms with postpartum OCD also experienced depression.