Pregnancy and Postpartum OCD

Perinatal (During Pregnancy) and Postpartum OCD is a mental health challenge called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that occurs during pregnancy or after the birth of a child. 

Between 3-11% of pregnant/postpartum women experience pOCD.  Some of these women have had OCD or OCD symptoms before, and for some, this is their first experience with OCD. 

Some experts believe that pOCD is brought on by major hormone changes in a woman’s body, others think that it is more likely related to the extra responsibility and stress that having a child introduces into peoples’ lives.  

Some of the more common pregnancy and postpartum OCD symptoms listed by the International OCD Foundation are:

  • OCD symptoms that start or worsen around the time or pregnancy or delivery.
  • Obsessions involving the fear of harm coming to the unborn or newborn infant.
  • Not wanting to tell others about obsessions for fear of being diagnosed with psychosis or being hospitalized.
  • Fear that you might harm the baby even when you don’t really want to.
  • Compulsions meant to control or stop the obsessional thoughts, or to prevent fears from coming true (e.g., checking onthe baby, excessive washing, repeating prayers or requests for assurances).
  • Avoiding certain activities with the baby (e.g., bathing, using stairs, holding, diaper changing).
  • Feeling overwhelmed by the obsessions and compulsions.
  • Feeling depressed (postpartum depression and pOCD often occur hand in hand).
  • Needing to have a partner or helper nearby because of obsessional fear.
  • Trouble sleeping because of obsessions and compulsive urges.
  • Interference with taking care of the child.

As you can see, many of these symptoms can interfere with the day to day life of a pregnant or postpartum mom.  When a mother begins to fear that she will harm her child- this can lead to her avoiding important activities, like bathing, holding or carrying her child.  The first year of life is an incredibly important time for mom and baby to be interacting, snuggling and doing other back and forth activities that lead to bonding.  And bonding lays the foundation for the ways that baby interacts with people in their life moving forward.  

This is not to frighten readers, just to say, if fear and anxiety is keeping you from really being present when you are around your baby, please get some support!

Pregnancy and Postpartum OCD is treatable. One of the most recognized and researched based treatments for OCD is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT.  

CBT helps individuals with OCD understand and counter the unhealthy beliefs that OCD is feeding them.  CBT has been found to be even more effective than medication for those facing the challenge of obsessive compulsive disorder. I love working with women who are struggling with OCD because I know how drastically their life can improve when they are not fighting a battle against OCD and losing every. single. day. It is incredibly exhausting and frustrating for my clients- and I rejoice with them when they begin to feel that they are taking their life back.

Some women that I talk to are very worried that their unwanted thoughts, (usually focused on harm coming to baby) are a sign that they are psychotic, a bad mother, are “perverted” or need to be hospitalized. (The pop-up thoughts that are most disturbing are usually sexual in nature. These DO NOT mean that you will act on these thoughts or wish to interact with your child in this way)

This worry often keeps them silent.  I think of it as the mama-bear instinct, you are concerned that asking for help might inadvertently lead to your baby paying a price.  And, let’s think about that for a moment- just that protective thought is an indicator that you are a concerned mother.  If you, or someone you care about is experiencing some of these symptoms, I would encourage you to reach out for help.  

Where can you find qualified help? I suggest you look for a licensed mental health professional, like a licensed counselor, social worker or psychiatrist that specializes in working with pregnant and postpartum women. PSI’s directory is a great place to start:

Postpartum Support International is a wonderful resource– they offer lots of articles, videos and a list of providers in your local area that have special training. I lead bi-monthly support groups for women with Postpartum Mood Disorders (including OCD) through PSI which are free and easy to access either online or via telephone. Sign up for one of those if you can, in addition to finding your own individual therapist.  If you are in NC, feel free to reach out to me for support. I’m happy to brainstorm with you! I work with mothers in my office in Black Mountain, NC, or online anywhere in NC.

Treatment for OCD starts by recognizing some symptoms and deciding that you want your life back! Don’t wait- I want you to have as many wonderful days with your baby as you possibly can. Warmly, Jenny Schermerhorn, Licensed Mental Health Therapist in NC. Specializing in the Journey & Transition To Motherhood.

This article is not meant to take the place of a relationship with a trained mental health therapist, or a medical professional. It is not meant to provide diagnosis of a mental health disorder. If you are experiencing a physical or mental health emergency, please dial 9-1-1

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