Almost a fifth of new mothers suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), triggered by a fear of their baby being harmed, a new study reveals.
From a sample of hundreds of mothers, researchers found OCD was prevalent in 17 per cent of mothers in the 38 weeks after they gave birth.
OCD symptoms for new mums can include intrusive thoughts involving germs, fears of harm to the baby as a result of neglect or excessive washing of children’s clothes or bottles.
Meanwhile, eight per cent of the new mothers reported OCD symptoms at some point during their pregnancy.
The post-birth, or ‘postpartum’, period has already been associated with mood swings, crying spells, anxiety and difficulty sleeping – known as the ‘baby blues’.
But the researchers warn OCD is another little-known symptom for women both before and after they give birth, which, if left untreated, can interfere with parenting, relationships and daily life.
OCD is characterised by obsessions (recurrent, unwanted, and distressing thoughts, images, or impulses) or compulsions (repetitive mental or behavioural acts). The researchers say thoughts, feelings or acts that meet criteria for a diagnosis of OCD tend to be heightened during pregnancy and after birth, out of fear of harm to their baby
The study shows that OCD can affect all perinatal women – both during pregnancy (prenatal) and after the baby is born (postpartum).
The authors are calling for health professionals to be on the lookout for OCD symptoms, which can often go undetected.
‘What really matters now is that we screen for and assess OCD among perinatal women with perinatal-specific questions and assessment methods,’ said study author Dr Nichole Fairbrother at University of British Columbia, Canada.
‘It is especially important that we include questions about intrusive thoughts of infant-related harm.
‘This ensures that perinatal women suffering from OCD are not missed and can be directed toward appropriate treatment.’
Fairbrother and her team surveyed 580 women in British Columbia during their third trimester of pregnancy and for six months afterwards.
Participants completed online questionnaires and interviews designed to assess the presence and severity of OCD symptoms.
The prevalence of OCD among new mothers peaked approximately eight weeks after delivery – 8.7 per cent of the total participants experienced OCD at this point.
Prior research by Dr Fairbrother and colleagues in 2019 had estimated the prevalence of OCD at only about 2.3 per cent during pregnancy and 1.7 per cent in the postpartum period – but this new study shows it’s much higher, at 8 per cent and 17 per cent, respectively.
The team say the new study is one of the first to use newly updated criteria for diagnosing OCD, which lowers the threshold for a diagnosis – and may account for this rise in figures.
By including specific questions about harm to the baby, the researchers were better able to uncover symptoms this time around.
‘The traditional questions are framed in a way that doesn’t really help women connect to the intrusive thoughts they’ve had about their baby,’ said Dr Fairbrother.
‘If they don’t recognise their experience in the questions that are asked, they may be underreporting.’
These questions included: ‘Have you had thoughts or images that your baby might stop breathing?’ and ‘Have you had thoughts, images or impulses of intentionally hitting your baby too hard when burping him/her?’
‘Prior to asking these questions we ensured that participants understood that the kinds of thoughts we were asking about were unwanted and intrusive,’ said Dr Fairbrother.
Data from the new study suggests OCD resolves itself naturally among some women as they become used to parenting, but for others it persists and may require treatment.
It’s important for care providers to know when women are most at risk, because they may be reluctant to report their symptoms, the experts say.
‘When mothers have these kinds of thoughts they might think, “There’s something wrong with me and I can’t tell anyone because there could be terrible consequences for me and my baby”,’ Dr Fairbrother said.
‘Perinatal OCD is common and we have a responsibility to identify those who experience it and ensure they receive timely, evidence-based treatment.’
The study has been published today in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.