Do new mothers suffer more from obsessive-compulsive symptoms than the general population?

Many women with a newborn baby feel that they have to be perfect mothers. This can cause them stress and anxiety.

Research from a study at the Northwestern University in the US suggests that women who have recently given birth have a much higher rate of obsessive-compulsive symptoms than the general population. 

A new mother may constantly worry and check to see if her baby is still breathing. Or she may fret about germs, obsessing whether she’s properly sterilised the bottles, then wash and rewash them.

The study found 11 percent of women at two weeks and six months after giving experience significant obsessive-compulsive symptoms compared to 2 to 3 percent in the general population. This is the first large-scale longitudinal study of obsessive-compulsive symptoms in the period after birth.

These symptoms are usually temporary and could result from hormonal changes or be an adaptive response to caring for a new baby, researchers said. But if the compulsions interfere with a mother’s functioning, they may indicate a psychological disorder.

The researchers’ own recollections of their own obsessive and upsetting thoughts after giving birth led them to investigate if the experience was universal. 

Obsessions are unwanted and repeated thoughts or images that create anxiety. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) may be triggered by stress, research shows. Thus, stressful situations, such as pregnancy and the  period after giving birth, 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. Some women in the study reported intrusive thoughts that they would harm the baby.

For women with obsessive-compulsive symptoms after birth who otherwise are functioning normally it might be reassuring to hear that their thoughts and behaviors are very common and should pass.

The women in the study were recruited during their delivery hospitalisation at Northwestern Memorial in Chicago and completed screening tests for anxiety, depression and OCD two weeks and six months after going home. A total of 461 women completed the surveys at two weeks and 329 of the original group completed them at six months. The women’s symptoms were self-reported and they did not receive a clinical diagnosis by a psychologist.     

About 50 percent of the women reported an improvement in their symptoms by six months, but at that time point new women developed symptoms whom had not experienced them at two weeks.

The researchers suggested that if those symptoms are developing much later after delivery, they are less likely to be hormonal or adaptive. They noted that the risk for psychological disorders persists for up to a year after delivery.

If the symptoms do continue then a few sessions of counselling might be the answer to help new mothers overcome the feelings of stress and anxiety. 

The study is published in the March/April issue of The Journal of Reproductive Medicine.



added at 12:03am on 6th March 2013

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