Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

Postpartum OCD: Symptoms, Treatment, and How to Get Help

Oct 24, 20237 minute read

happy mom recovered from postpartum ocd

Having a child is a life-altering event. After having a child, you may start to experience worries, anxieties, and fears you didn’t have before. In recent years, more attention has been given to the reasons some new parents experience mental health challenges. One example is postpartum depression, a condition that some research has suggested affects one in eight new moms (or even more).

What you hear less about is Postpartum Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or Postpartum OCD. As a specialist in the field of OCD—and the Chief Clinical Officer for NOCD I’ve seen the relief that people feel when they finally get the right diagnosis for their symptoms. That’s why it’s important that new parents are aware of this disorder, the signs to watch for, and how to get help. 

Keep reading for answers that you or a loved one may need.

What Is Postpartum Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

Like other postpartum disorders, Postpartum OCD can greatly impact the health and wellness of new parents and can affect the bond they develop with their baby. That said, the symptoms of OCD are distinct.

All forms of OCD have two key criteria. First, there are intrusive or unwanted obsessive thoughts, images, or urges. Then there are compulsions—repetitive behaviors or mental acts—that are often performed in an effort to calm the distress brought on by the obsession. (Performing compulsions only makes their condition worse as it only provides, at best, fleeting relief.)

Postpartum OCD shares these characteristics of other types of OCD, but the thoughts manifest a bit differently. While someone with contamination obsessions might be worried about germs and have to obsessively wash their hands before doing anything, someone with Postpartum OCD often experiences obsessions that center around their baby. This could manifest as recurring, disruptive fears about the baby’s life or wellbeing.

Here are some examples of the symptoms of Postpartum OCD:

Postpartum OCD obsessions:

  • Concerns about germs and contamination that could make a baby sick
  • Fear that you’re going to make a parenting mistake that will severely impact your child
  • The urge to constantly keep tabs on your baby’s vitals
  • Fear that if you leave your baby with anyone, even a co-parent, something bad could happen 

Postpartum OCD compulsions:

  • Excessive checking on your baby
  • Avoiding being around your baby alone
  • Excessive online research of unwanted thoughts and what they may mean
  • Mentally repeating prayers or assertions about how much you care for your child
  • Asking others if your child will be okay, or if you’re a good parent
  • Repeatedly checking for signs of breathing throughout the night
  • Seeking reassurance from a partner or other family members to be sure you have not done something harmful

Keep in mind, a certain amount of worry is often a normal part of being a new parent. But when the worry about a child causes a great deal of distress and disrupts your ability to function, it may be a sign to get help.

For example, having a sudden thought one night that your infant may be in danger and running to their crib to check is an understandable occurrence as an isolated incident. However, if you check on your baby multiple times throughout the night, every night, because you’re constantly afraid for their safety, it could be a sign of Postpartum OCD. 

Do these symptoms sound familiar? Learn how you can overcome them

As an OCD specialist, I know how overwhelming postpartum OCD symptoms can be—especially when they make you fear for your own child’s safety. You’re not on your own, and you can talk to a specialist like me who has experience treating postpartum OCD.

Learn more

Does Postpartum OCD mean you’re a bad parent?

No. It is not uncommon for individuals who are experiencing postpartum OCD to report fears surrounding purposefully harming their child. But what’s important to know is that these thoughts are ego-dystonic, meaning they are not in alignment with the person’s true desires. In fact, this is why these thoughts, images, and urges cause the individual such distress. 

Some people with postpartum OCD have reported intrusive thoughts about causing harm to their babies, which understandably leads to a great deal of concern. Some research suggests that up to 80% of all new mothers, whether they have experienced OCD symptoms or not, report unwanted or concerning intrusive thoughts similar to those experienced by mothers with known Postpartum OCD. The difference is, however, that new mothers with Postpartum OCD are so terrified by their intrusive thoughts (oftentimes the fear of violent or sexual harm) that they try to neutralize those thoughts with other thoughts or compulsive actions.

When your intrusive thoughts are of a violent or sexual nature, you may think you’re the only parent who has these thoughts or that you’re a horrible person. But this is not the case. According to Dr. Jonathan Abramowitz, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, common violent thoughts include:

  • The idea that the baby could die in their sleep (S.I.D.S.)
  • An image of the baby dead
  • Thoughts of the baby choking and not being able to save them
  • Unwanted impulses to shake the baby to see what would happen
  • Thought of stabbing the baby
  • Thoughts of drowning the baby during a bath

As for postpartum OCD involving sexually intrusive thoughts, here are some examples:

Does Postpartum OCD go away on its own?

OCD is considered a chronic condition, meaning that symptoms can persist and may never go away entirely. Even in subtypes like Postpartum OCD which may develop over a short period of time, OCD may often persist in various forms if left untreated. As developmental stages of your child change, your obsessions may become attached to other areas of their life that you feel responsible for, or to other aspects of their safety and well-being.

While OCD is a chronic condition, that doesn’t mean that you will suffer from it forever. In fact, relief from the suffering caused by OCD can be achieved relatively quickly, when the right treatment is used.

How is Postpartum OCD treated? 

Like many forms of OCD, postpartum OCD is sometimes treated with medication such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, but—more often than not—the most effective form of treatment involves exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP therapy).

ERP therapy works by exposing the person with OCD to potentially triggering situations or circumstances so that they can learn to live with. Working with a trained therapist, people learn to control their responses in a safe environment. The goal of ERP therapy is to help the person with OCD understand that they don’t have to act on their compulsions. ERP therapy is the gold standard of treatment for OCD and studies suggest that it is effective for those with Postpartum OCD. 

Access therapy that’s designed for OCD

I’ve personally used ERP to help many people who struggled with postpartum OCD regain their lives. I encourage you to learn about accessing ERP therapy with NOCD.

Learn about ERP with NOCD

How to get therapy for Postpartum OCD

When searching for a therapist to help with postpartum OCD, look for a provider that has specific experience with ERP therapy. 

You can now also find ERP-trained therapists online through NOCD. NOCD has a nationwide network of therapists with specialized training and experience in ERP therapy. NOCD therapists can see you via one-on-one video therapy sessions or teletherapy, and you’ll be able to get started quickly, with more than 90% of people seen by a therapist within two weeks of booking their first appointment.

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