New Mom Anxiety May Be Too Much

Obsessive compulsive symptoms in mothers after giving birth may be unhealthy

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Once you have a baby, you realize the huge responsibility of taking care of another life. But it is possible to go overboard on worrying about your child's safety and well-being.

A recent study found that a small percentage of women appear to develop obsessive-compulsive symptoms after having a baby.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder in which a person becomes obsessive about certain worries or compulsively does a number of behaviors to the point that it is mentally unhealthy.

It's estimated that 2 to 3 percent of individuals have OCD. However, the researchers found that the percentage appears higher among women after giving birth.

Around 10 to 11 percent of women show obsessive-compulsive symptoms in the first six months after having their babies.

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The study, led by Emily S. Miller, MD, MPH, of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, aimed to understand how common obsessive-compulsive behaviors were among mothers after giving birth.

The researchers gave 461 women screening tests for depression, anxiety and OCD symptoms about two weeks after they gave birth. At the start of the study, only 0.4 percent reported having previously been diagnosed with OCD.

Then, six months after having their babies, 329 of these women filled out the same screening tests again. The others were lost to follow-up.

The researchers found that 11 percent of the women showed a number of symptoms for OCD at two weeks after delivery, though most of these (10 percent of the women) showed mild OCD overall.

None of the cases found in the screening tests were severe. None of the women received official diagnoses for this disorder; the women self-reported their feelings and behaviors.

Among the fears the women had were worries about injuring their baby and worrying about germs. These concerns are certainly normal for new mothers, the researchers said.

However, if the worries become so intense that they interfere with a mother's ability to function day-to-day, then they could indicate a mental health problem.

At the six-month follow-up, nearly half the women who had the OCD symptoms after delivery still had them. Meanwhile, another 5.4 percent of the women who initially did not have OCD symptoms now developed symptoms of OCD, for a total of 10.6 percent.

Women who were found to have anxiety and/or depression during the screenings were more likely to also develop the OCD symptoms. In fact, about 70 percent of the women with OCD symptoms also showed symptoms of depression at two weeks after delivery.

A total of 27.5 percent of those who screened positive for OCD at two weeks after delivery also screened positive for anxiety.

At six months after delivery, both these numbers dropped: 5.7 percent of those with OCD symptoms showed symptoms of anxiety, and 43 percent of those with OCD symptoms had symptoms of depression.

The researchers concluded that "the postpartum period is a high-risk time for the development of OCD symptoms" and that they are likely to persist for at least six months.

However, more research is necessary to determine where the threshold is between normal behaviors of new moms and more obsessive behaviors that might indicate a psychological disorder.  

"There is some debate as to whether postpartum depression is simply a major depressive episode that happens after birth or its own disease with its own features," Dr. Miller said in a prepared statement.

"Our study supports the idea that it may be its own disease with more of the anxiety and obsessive-compulsive symptoms than would be typical for a major depressive episode," she said.

The study was published in the March/April issue of The Journal of Reproductive Medicine. Information regarding funding was unavailable. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
March 7, 2013
Last Updated:
December 31, 2013