Most new parents experience some degree of anxiety about their baby but for some women, the stress of becoming a mother can trigger Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) symptoms. This is known as postpartum OCD.
The Causes of Postpartum OCDThe causes of postpartum OCD aren't fully understood, but experts have suggested that hormonal fluctuations such as increased levels of oestrogen may play a part as hormone changes can affect the neurotransmitters in the brain, especially serotonin, which has been strongly linked to the development of OCD.
Stress is another factor in the development of postpartum OCD as it is known to be a major trigger for OCD symptoms in general. For many women, the responsibility of becoming a parent creates significant anxiety, which may lead them to perform compulsive rituals as a coping mechanism.
The Symptoms of Postpartum OCDFor postpartum OCD, obsessions and compulsive rituals tend to centre on the new baby and involve the basic maternal feelings going into overdrive and becoming excessive.
Common obsessions include fears of contamination, which will often result in compulsive cleaning and hand washing rituals. For example, you may repeatedly sterilise your baby's bottle to avoid contamination or compulsively check on your baby every few minutes to make sure that he or she hasn't come to any harm.
In addition to this, intrusive and disturbing thoughts relating to the new baby may also be experienced. For example, you may worry that you will accidentally harm your child in some way and this can result in disgust and self-loathing. Despite these type of concerns, sufferers of postpartum OCD will rarely harm themselves or anyone around them, and the fears are generally entirely imagined. In its extreme form, these thoughts and images will cover a wide range of situations that could hypothetically befall your child and the vast majority of these are unlikely to ever happen. They are extremely distressing and can begin to take over your life if treatment is not forthcoming.
TreatmentMost women with postpartum OCD are strongly aware that their obsessions and compulsions are not 'normal', but they are often scared to seek treatment in case it means that they are deemed to be an unfit mother. However, if you think that you might be suffering from postpartum OCD, it's vital to seek treatment as soon as possible to ensure that it doesn't stop you bonding with your baby and spill over into all areas of your life. This is particularly important if you are experiencing intrusive thoughts and images as this needs treatment from a qualified mental health professional. Your GP can refer you to a mental health professional after assessing your symptoms.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is usually the first port of call for treating OCD and is preferable for new mothers as it avoids the need to take anti-OCD medication such as anti-depressants and Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs). SSRIs can be transferred to your baby through breast milk, although there's currently no evidence to suggest that this would cause any problems in the long term if CBT alone doesn't offer enough help.