Evidence-Based Reviews

Postpartum psychosis: Protecting mother and infant

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PPP vs “baby blues.” “Baby blues” is not an official DSM-5 diagnosis but rather a normative postpartum experience that affects 50% to 80% of postpartum women. A woman with the “baby blues” may feel weepy or have mild mood lability, irritability, or anxiety; however, these symptoms do not significantly impair function. Peak symptoms typically occur between 2 to 5 days postpartum and generally resolve within 2 weeks. Women who have the “baby blues” are at an increased risk for PPD and should be monitored over time.13,14

PPP vs PPD. Postpartum depression affects approximately 10% to 15% of new mothers.15 Women with PPD may experience feelings of persistent and severe sadness, feelings of detachment, insomnia, and fatigue. Symptoms of PPD can interfere with a mother’s interest in caring for her baby and present a barrier to maternal bonding.16,17

As the awareness of PPD has increased in recent years, screening for depressive symptoms during and after pregnancy has increasingly become the standard of care.18 When evaluating a postpartum woman for PPD, it is important to consider PPP in the differential. Women with severe or persistent depressive symptoms may also develop psychotic symptoms. Furthermore, suicidal thoughts or thoughts of harming the infant may be present in either PPD or PPP. One study found that 41% of mothers with depression endorsed thoughts of harming their infants.19

PPP vs postpartum OCD. Postpartum obsessive-compulsive symptoms commonly occur comorbidly with PPD,9 and OCD often presents for the first time in the postpartum period.20 Obsessive-compulsive disorder affects between 2% to 9% of new mothers.21,22 It is critical to properly differentiate PPP from postpartum OCD. Clinical questions should be posed with a non-judgmental stance. Just as delusions in PPP are often focused on the infant, for women with OCD, obsessive thoughts may center on worries about the infant’s safety. Distressing obsessions about violence are common in OCD.23 Mothers with OCD may experience intrusive thinking about accidentally or purposefully harming their infant. For example, they may intrusively worry that they will accidentally put the baby in the microwave or oven, leave the baby in a hot car, or throw the baby down the stairs. However, a postpartum woman with OCD may be reluctant to share her ego-dystonic thoughts of infant harm. Mothers with OCD are not out of touch with reality; instead, their intrusive thoughts are ego-dystonic and distressing. These are thoughts and fears that they focus on and try to avoid, rather than plan. The psychiatrist must carefully differentiate between ego-syntonic and ego-dystonic thoughts. These patients often avoid seeking treatment because of their shame and guilt.23 Clinicians often under-recognize OCD and risk inappropriate hospitalization, treatment, and inappropriate referral to Child Protective Services (CPS).23

Perinatal psychiatric risk assessment

When a mother develops PPP, consider the risks of suicide, child harm, and infanticide. Although suicide risk is generally lower in the postpartum period, suicide is the cause of 20% of postpartum deaths.24,25 When PPP is untreated, suicide risk is elevated. A careful suicide risk assessment should be completed.

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