Postpartum psychosis (psychosis after childbirth)

Postpartum psychosis is a rare but serious mental health illness that can affect a woman soon after she has a baby. Postpartum psychosis should be treated as a medical emergency, see symptoms below. If not treated immediately, the condition can become worse very quickly.

Symptoms of postpartum psychosis

Many women will experience mild mood changes after having a baby, known as the ‘baby blues’. This is normal and usually only lasts for a few days.

But postpartum psychosis is very different from the ‘baby blues’. It's a serious mental illness and should be treated as a medical emergency.

Symptoms usually start suddenly within the first two weeks after giving birth. More rarely, they can develop several weeks after the baby is born.

Symptoms can include:

  • hallucinations
  • delusions – thoughts or beliefs that are unlikely to be true
  • a manic mood – talking and thinking too much or too quickly, feeling "high" or "on top of the world"
  • a low mood – showing signs of depression, being withdrawn or tearful, lacking energy, having a loss of appetite, anxiety or trouble sleeping
  • loss of inhibitions
  • feeling suspicious or fearful
  • restlessness
  • feeling very confused
  • behaving in a way that's out of character 

When to get medical help

Postpartum psychosis is a serious mental illness that should be treated as a medical emergency. If not treated immediately, someone with the condition can get rapidly worse and could neglect or harm their baby or themselves.

See a GP or contact GP out of hours service immediately if you think you, or someone you know, may have developed symptoms of postpartum psychosis.

Or call your crisis team if you already have a care plan because you've been assessed as being high risk.

Go to your nearest emergency department or call 999 if you think you, or someone you know, may be in danger of imminent harm.

Be aware that if you have postpartum psychosis, you may not realise you're ill. Your partner, family or friends may spot the signs and have to take action.

Treating postpartum psychosis

Most women need to be treated in hospital. Preferably in a suitable place that supports treatment, caring for both the mother and the baby.

Most women with postpartum psychosis make a full recovery as long as they receive the right treatment.

Causes of postpartum psychosis

It’s unclear exactly was causes postpartum psychosis but you're more at risk if you:

  • have a family history of mental health illness, particularly postpartum psychosis (even if you have no history of mental illness)
  • already have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia
  • you have a traumatic birth or pregnancy
  • you developed postpartum psychosis after a previous pregnancy

Reducing the risk of postpartum psychosis

If you're at high risk of developing postpartum psychosis, you should have specialist care during pregnancy and be seen by a psychiatrist. Your care should be planned before the birth.

In the first few weeks after your baby is born, you should have regular home visits from a midwife, health visitor and mental health nurse.

Recovering from postpartum psychosis

The most severe symptoms tend to last 2 to 12 weeks. It can take 6 to 12 months or more to recover from the condition. But with treatment, most women with postpartum psychosis do make a full recovery.

An episode of postpartum psychosis is sometimes followed by a period of depression, anxiety and low confidence. It might take a while for you to come to terms with what happened. 

Some mothers have difficulty bonding with their baby after an episode of postpartum psychosis, or feel some sadness at missing out on time with their baby.

With support from your partner, family, friends and the mental health team, you can overcome these feelings.

Many women who've had postpartum psychosis go on to have more children. About half of women will have another episode after a future pregnancy. But you should be able to get help quickly with the right care.

Postpartum psychosis can have a big impact on your life, but support is available, see more useful links below.

Supporting people with their recovery

People with postpartum psychosis will need support to help them with their recovery.

You can help your partner, relative or friend by:

  • being calm and supportive
  • taking time to listen
  • helping with housework and cooking
  • helping with childcare and night-time feeds
  • letting them get as much sleep as possible
  • helping with shopping and household chores
  • keeping the home as calm and quiet as possible
  • not having too many visitors

Support for partners, relatives and friends

Postpartum psychosis can be distressing for partners, relatives and friends, too. 

If your partner, relative or friend is going through an episode of postpartum psychosis or recovering, don't be afraid to get help yourself.

Talk to a mental health professional or approach one of the charities listed.

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

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