When a woman experiences frequent intrusive thoughts, excessive and obsessive preoccupation with her baby or an aspect of motherhood (e.g. feeding, cleanliness), it may be a sign of an obsessive-compulsive disorder. When we think of OCD we imagine the flicking of light switches before leaving a room or having to have items arranged in a straight line, and while that is often an indicator of postpartum OCD, primarily obsessional OCD in the postpartum period can often be triggered by intrusive thoughts without the accompanying physical compulsive behaviours that a sufferer uses to feel reassured, making it harder to diagnose and treat.
Research indicates that 3% to 5% of all new mothers and fathers experience obsessive symptoms postpartum. Some of the intrusive thoughts and images can be very upsetting and yet the parent is highly unlikely to ever act on them. The horror, guilt and upset created by disturbing intrusive thoughts is itself a sign that the thoughts are ego-dystonic – meaning that they don’t make sense to woman’s sense of self.
This is one of the important reasons to consult a professional with specialised training in Maternal Mental Health, who can differentiate between Postpartum OCD and Postpartum Psychosis, a completely different disorder which requires emergency treatment.
Because of the horrible thoughts popping up unannounced into the woman’s awareness, some mothers feel as though they are a danger to their baby and avoid being left alone with baby or even carry the baby. A dynamic of poor bonding and connection between mother and child can then be created, leading to long-lasting negative repercussions for the family.
Successful therapy will help reduce emotional overwhelm created by intrusive thoughts and reduce compulsions while promoting healthy connection with the baby.