It’s one of the most frequent sources of new-parent stress: Mom drives Dad crazy with obsessive worries about diaper changing, bottle sterilizing or whether the baby is still breathing. A new study out of Northwestern University suggests that she can’t help it–her excess vigilance may actually be a form of temporary, childbirth-induced obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The researchers, at the Feinberg School of Medicine, found that 11 percent of the 461 new mothers they assessed in the weeks after childbirth exhibited obsessive-compulsive symptoms, compared with just 2 to 3 percent of the general population.The most common “obsessions” the women reported concerned worries about germs or dirt, or fears that they had “made a mistake” in caring for baby. And the most frequent compulsions included rechecking that the baby monitors were working and repeatedly sterilizing bottles. Some also reported fear that they would harm the baby. Researcher Dana Gossett, MD, numbers herself among women who have experienced that worry. She recalls frequently fretting that her newborn would fall out of bed or that she would topple down the stairs while carrying her baby. “It comes into your mind unbidden and it’s frightening,” she says. In fact, such personal experience with obsessive post-partum thoughts led Gossett and her colleagues to conduct the study. They wondered whether the experience was common among new mothers.
The researchers think hormonal changes may be triggering the worries and compulsive behaviors. In fact, they believe these temporary OCD tendencies could be beneficial. “It may be that certain kinds of obsessions and compulsions are adaptive and appropriate for a new parent, for example those about cleanliness and hygiene,” says Gossett. About half of the mothers reported that their symptoms had diminished by the time the infant was six months old. But mothers who continued to check endlessly that baby was breathing may suffer from an ongoing disorder. “When it interferes with normal day-to-day functioning and appropriate care for the baby and parent, it becomes maladaptive and pathologic,” Gossett says. The researchers think their study may offer evidence of a distinct post-partum disorder, characterized by OCD symptoms as well as depression (70 percent of the women who screened positive for OCD symptoms also screened positive for depression).
But for many postpartum women who are driving themselves–and their partners’–crazy, it’ should come as a welcome relief to know that their fears and compulsions are a normal reaction to new motherhood–and should pass.
The study will be published The Journal of Reproductive Medicine.