Shortly after Dana Gossett gave birth to her first daughter 13 years ago, she began agonizing over worst-case scenarios familiar to any new mother.
One of those nagging concerns: What if I fall down the stairs while carrying the baby?
“It’s not something you intend to do, it’s not something you want to do, but it’s a thought that comes unbidden into your mind,” said Gossett, a physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
Those persistent worries are at the center of a new Northwestern Medicine study that shows postpartum mothers are nearly four times more likely to grapple with obsessive-compulsive behavior than everyone else.
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“Are they really abnormal or a universal experience for all postpartum mothers?” Gossett said. “We were frankly surprised by the numbers.”
Eleven percent of several hundred mothers surveyed at two and six weeks after giving birth reported obsessive-compulsive symptoms, such as worrying too much about dirt and germs.
The study did not delve into the possible causes of the elevated anxiety, but Gossett offered her own explanation.
“We know that stress of any nature can trigger OCD,” Gossett said, referring to obsessive-compulsive disorder. “And we know that childbirth and becoming a mother is enormously stressful.”
Although the fears are common, Gossett said new mothers should think twice if their concerns are causing “significant emotional distress” or interfering with everyday life, like preventing them from leaving the garage because they cannot stop checking their child’s car seat.
The study, which Northwestern calls one of the first of its kind, could help other researchers determine whether postpartum depression is a gloomy period or its own disease. Gossett is reserving judgment.
“The jury is out,” she said, “but it’s a fascinating idea.”