New moms are much more likely to suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorders than the general population, with many neurotically fretting over their babies’ health and well-being, new research shows.
In what is believed to be the first large-scale study of OCD in new mothers, Northwestern University researchers found 11 percent of women experience significant symptoms after delivering children that lasts at least six months. That compares to just 2-3 percent in the general population.
But the compulsive behaviors can sometimes get in the way of a mother's functioning and child care, and may indicate a deeper psychological disorder, said the researchers.
"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," said Dana Gossett, M.D., assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. "But when it interferes with normal day-to-day functioning and appropriate care for the baby and parent, it becomes maladaptive and pathologic."
Past studies have shown that OCD can be triggered by stress. Consequently, pregnancy and the postpartum period may exacerbate or predispose women to OCD.
The most prevalent thoughts women reported in the study were concern about dirt or germs followed by compulsions to check that they did not "make a mistake." New mothers may check and recheck baby monitors are working, the baby's crib side is properly latched, or bottles are properly sterilized, for example.
Gossett said the findings should ease many new moms’ worries about compulsive thoughts."It would be reassuring to hear that their thoughts and behaviors are very common and should pass," she said.
The 461 women in the study were recruited during their delivery hospitalization at Northwestern Memorial and completed screening tests for anxiety, depression, and OCD two weeks and six months after going home.
About 50 percent of the women reported an improvement in their symptoms by six months. About 70 percent of the women with OCD symptoms also had a history of depression.
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