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Postpartum Psychosis

Postpartum psychosis is a severe acute mental illness requiring attention in emergency department setting. It is defined as an affective psychosis of acute onset in a previously well woman days or weeks after delivery.


The majority of puerperal psychotic episodes are of affective type with mania [1], specifically a cognitive disorganization psychosis which is not observed in women with nonchildbearing affective psychosis [9]. Its manifestations include cognitive impairment, bizarre behavior, thought disorganization, lack of insight, delusions of reference, delusions of persecution, and greater levels of homicidal and suicidal ideations and behavior [9]. Delusions and hallucinations are said to be Schneiderian, which is defined as thought broadcasting and feeling of being controlled by an outside force [10].

The mean time of onset of symptoms is within two to three weeks after giving birth [2]. Psychotic episode starts with complaints of fatigue, insomnia, and restlessness. Tearfulness and emotional lability may also be observed. Manifestation become worse, with patient presents with suspiciousness, confusion, incoherence, irrational statements, and obsessive concerns about the health and welfare of the infant [2]. Majority have delusional ideas related to their infant, like someone is planning to kill the baby or the baby is harmed by the breastmilk [11]. In 28-35% of cases, delusions that the infant is dead or defective may be observed [2] [4], while 9% had infanticidal thoughts [4]. Patients may also deny giving birth and invoke reasons such as virginity and being unmarried [2].

  • Arch Gen Psychiatry 2007 ; 64:42–48 Crossref, Medline, Google Scholar 13 Maina G, Rosso G, Aguglia A, et al. : Recurrence rates of bipolar disorder during the postpartum period: a study on 276 medication-free Italian women.[doi.org]
Poor Feeding
  • While data contradicting breastfeeding while in lithium is lacking, the infant should be strictly monitored for signs of toxicity, such as poor hydration, sedation, poor feeding, and weight gain.[symptoma.com]
  • Likewise, mothers must be instructed to observe for behavioral changes indicative of infant toxicity, such as poor hydration, sedation, poor feeding, and weight gain, as well as signs of hepatic and hematological impairment.[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • The appearance of psychotic symptoms was chronologically related to the onset of postpartum thyroiditis and resolution of psychosis synchronized with the achievement of biochemical euthyroidism.[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
Respiratory Disorders
  • RESULTS: Respiratory disorder in the neonate, severe birth asphyxia, preterm birth, caesarean section, perinatal death and SGA infant were associated with an increased risk of postpartum psychosis.[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • Panic disorder, part of generalized anxiety disorder ( GAD ), manifests itself as a panic attack, with abrupt onset of difficulty breathing, palpitations, chest pain, dizziness and a panicky feeling of being "about to die."[m.chabad.org]
  • We discuss the distinction between the overvalued idea as presented in pseudopregnancy and delusion as presented in the postpartum psychosis and suggest that the two phenomena can be viewed as a continuum rather than dichotomized, especially in cases[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • Delusions and hallucinations are aspects of psychosis. A delusion is a significantly unusual belief that other people don't share.[mind.org.uk]
  • It is also important to know that many survivors of postpartum psychosis never had delusions containing violent commands. Delusions take many forms, and not all of them are destructive.[postpartum.net]
  • Its manifestations include cognitive impairment, bizarre behavior, thought disorganization, lack of insight, delusions of reference, delusions of persecution, and greater levels of homicidal and suicidal ideations and behavior.[symptoma.com]
Anxiety Disorder
  • Unfortunately, women who do not get treatment may develop chronic depressive disorders and their children are at risk of developing learning difficulties, behavioural problems and depressive and anxiety disorders in childhood.[postpartum.org]
  • She is widely published in the academic literature on all facets of perinatal mental health and wrote the guidelines on Assessment and Treatment of Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders for the Perinatal Advisory Council of Los Angeles.[online.csp.edu]
  • Terms used in this guideline Anxiety disorders These include generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive‑compulsive disorder, phobias, post‑traumatic stress disorder and social anxiety disorder.[nice.org.uk]
Auditory Hallucination
  • Graves' disease with postpartum psychosis may present with delirium, catatonia and prominent auditory hallucinations and responds well to a combination of psychotropic and antithyroid drugs.[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • A woman with postpartum psychosis may lose touch with reality and have auditory hallucinations (hearing things that are not actually happening, like a person talking) and delusions (perceiving things differently from the way they are).[medicinenet.com]
  • The following auditory hallucinations are common: Hearing several voices talking, often negatively, about the patient A voice giving a commentary on what the patient is doing A voice repeating what the patient is thinking Bizarre delusions during psychosis[medicalnewstoday.com]
  • Auditory hallucinations that instruct the mother to harm herself or her infant may also occur. Risk for infanticide, as well as suicide, is significant in this population.[womensmentalhealth.org]
Suicidal Ideation
  • The nurses described delusions, disconnection, aggression, changed personality, self-absorption, insomnia, chaos, quietness, suicidal ideation, and 'strange eyes.'[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • A prospective study of thoughts of self-harm and suicidal ideation during the postpartum period in women with mood disorders.[doi.org]
  • Its manifestations include cognitive impairment, bizarre behavior, thought disorganization, lack of insight, delusions of reference, delusions of persecution, and greater levels of homicidal and suicidal ideations and behavior.[symptoma.com]
Psychiatric Symptoms
  • The treatment effect was evaluated by a clinician-rated psychiatric symptom scale (the Brief Psychiatric Rating Scale [BPRS]).[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • Hill says the causes of postpartum psychosis are unknown, with most of those experiencing it having never shown psychiatric symptoms before. It usually presents within the first six weeks after birth.[theguardian.com]
  • No need for sleep, strange beliefs, hallucinations, confusion and difficulty communicating are among the symptoms. Postpartum psychosis is an emergency and requires immediate help.[womans.org]
  • What is important is the recognition that anxiety is normal and exists due to a set of bodily functions that have existed in us from our cave-man days." 6) Confusion You may feel confused and like you are in a constant dream-like state.[motherandbaby.co.uk]
  • Group, Schools of Medicine and Psychology, Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK. daviesw4@cardiff.ac.uk Abstract Postpartum (or puerperal) psychosis (PP) occurs shortly after childbirth in 0.1-0.2% of women, and is characterised by delusions, mood swings, confused[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • However, other names can be used and this can be confusing.[app-network.org]
  • Rapid mood changes from feeling high/manic or agitated to low and depressed mood can occur. No need for sleep, strange beliefs, hallucinations, confusion and difficulty communicating are among the symptoms.[womans.org]
  • Other key symptoms included hallucinations, mixed mood symptoms, agitation and transient disorientation.[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • Other symptoms may include insomnia, agitation, anger, and irrational guilt about somehow having done something wrong. Women who have postpartum psychosis need prompt treatment and almost always need medication.[medicinenet.com]
  • The nurses described delusions, disconnection, aggression, changed personality, self-absorption, insomnia, chaos, quietness, suicidal ideation, and 'strange eyes.'[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • Other symptoms may include insomnia, agitation, anger, and irrational guilt about somehow having done something wrong. Women who have postpartum psychosis need prompt treatment and almost always need medication.[medicinenet.com]
  • Delusions Periods of delirium or mania Thoughts of harming the baby or oneself Irrational feelings of guilt Refusing to eat Thought insertion — The notion that other beings or forces (God, aliens, the CIA, etc.) can put thoughts or ideas into one's mind Insomnia[bipolar.about.com]
  • Postpartum psychosis causes paranoia, hallucinations (hearing voices urging a new mother to kill herself or her child), severe insomnia, loss of appetite, anxiety and depression.[melaniesbattle.org]
Extrapyramidal Symptoms
  • The two patients with anti-NMDA receptor antibodies both showed extrapyramidal symptoms following initiation of treatment with low-dose haloperidol.[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • symptoms; if a benzodiazepine is used, the risks of floppy baby syndrome should be taken into account during the perinatal period, the woman's care should be managed in close collaboration with a paediatrician and an anaesthetist. [2007] 1.9 Considerations[nice.org.uk]
Organic Psychosis
  • METHODS: The authors searched Medline (1966-2005), PsycInfo (1974-2005), Toxnet, and PubMed databases using the key words postpartum psychosis, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, organic psychosis, pharmacotherapy, psychotherapy, and electroconvulsive[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]


A thorough history must be obtained. Since the primary psychiatric diagnosis to consider in postpartum psychosis is bipolar disorder, history of the disorder, either personal or family, must be determined [4]. Thoughts of dying, feeling of life not worth living, active plans to kill herself or the baby, access to weapons, and suicidal attempts in the past must also be elicited and must be taken seriously [4].

Laboratory investigations may be requested to exclude organic causes of acute psychosis [4]. Cerebrovascular events such as stroke due to preeclampsia may be excluded by careful history, blood pressure measurement, and CT or MRI [4]. Sepsis can be detected by CBC, urine culture, and, in cases of meningitis or encephalitis, lumbar puncture or cranial CT [4]. Metabolic or nutritional causes may also present with psychosis-like signs and symptoms [4]. Electrolytes such as sodium, fasting blood sugar, calcium, serum Vitamin B12, RBC folate, and thiamine levels may be requested [4]. Normal BUN and creatinine level will rule out uremic encephalopathy, while liver function tests (AST, ALT, alkaline phosphate, LDH, direct and indirect bilirubin) may exclude hepatic etiology [4]. Thyroid function tests can rule out Graves disease [4]. History of medication and drug screening may point to drug use as the primary cause of psychosis [4].

To screen for depression and mania/hypomania, the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS) and the Mood Disorder Questionnaire (MDQ) may be employed. EPDS is a self-rating tool used to uncover the presence of persistent low mood, anhedonia, guilt, anxiety, and thoughts of self-harm, while MDQ may be used to elicit past and present symptoms of high or irritable mood, racing thoughts, pressured speech, and manic or hypomanic symptoms [4]. Confusion, threats of harming herself or other people, difficulty caring her children, or poor self-care elicited in these screening tools must prompt the physician to refer the patient to a psychiatrist immediately [4].

Toxoplasma Gondii
  • METHODS: We measured the prevalence and titers of immunoglobulin G (IgG) and M (IgM) to herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and 2 (HSV-2), Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), cytomegalovirus (CMV) and Toxoplasma Gondii (TG) in a cohort of patients with postpartum[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]


No clinical guidelines specific to the management of postpartum psychosis is existing, and no universal recommendations can be made [1] [4]. The management should be individualized and discussed with the patient and her family, including the choices as well as the side effects of medications. The management of postpartum psychosis must involve education of patient about the illness, ruling out organic causes, initiation of pharmacologic and supportive therapy, and constant assessment of patient’s function and safety status [4].

Patients with suicidal or homicidal ideations should be brought to an emergency department as soon as possible [4]. Insomnia if present should be treated aggressively [3]. Organic causes must be ruled out first prior to the diagnosis of postpartum psychosis [4].

Drug treatment is needed to manage the psychotic and mood-related symptoms of psychosis, and should be initiated once organic causes are ruled out [4]. Although monotherapy is more preferred, some patients may require more than one drug to achieve satisfactory resolution of symptoms. These drugs are often started at the lowest starting dose and titrated slowly to the response dose to minimize side effects [4]. Assessment of patient’s function and safety status must be done repeatedly. This includes exploring the adherence to regimen and checking for signs of side effects which may necessitate dose adjustment [4].

Lithium and antipsychotic medications are considered the treatment of choice in the management of postpartum psychosis [2]. Patients with known cyclic mood illness or with family history of bipolar disorder may benefit from lithium [4]. Lithium has a very narrow window between the therapeutic and toxic windows, hence renal and thyroid functions should be assessed after five days. Drug level should be tested every 6-12 months after stabilization [4]. Side effects include tremor, sedation, renal dysfunction, weight gain, nausea, and vomiting. While data contradicting breastfeeding while in lithium is lacking [1], the infant should be strictly monitored for signs of toxicity, such as poor hydration, sedation, poor feeding, and weight gain [13]. Patients should also avoid drugs that alter fluid balance and renal excretion of lithium, such as thiazides, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors [4].

Antiepileptic drugs are also used in the management of postpartum psychosis, particularly carbamazepine and valproic acid which are compatible with breastfeeding (4). Carbamazepine is used primarily in the treatment of mania, while valproic acid is indicated for bipolar illness. Other antiepileptic drugs approved for bipolar illness include oxcarbazepine for bipolar mania and lamotrigine for maintenance therapy of bipolar depression [4].

Atypical antipsychotic agents like olanzapine, risperidone, quetiapine, and ziprasidone are also used in managing acute psychosis and bipolar mania. Those with primary diagnosis of schizophrenia may also benefit from these drugs. Patients however must be advised to modify their diet and exercise regularly while taking any of these drugs to minimize the adverse metabolic side effects [4]. Extrapyramidal side effects should also be monitored as these are increased among patients with with affective disorders like postpartum psychosis. These drugs are also deemed safe for the infant while breastfeeding, though strict monitoring of the baby should also be done [4].

Electroconvulsive therapy, though becoming a mainstream treatment option recently [4] due to its effective treatment of puerperal psychosis [1], must be considered if conventional therapeutic options are ineffective. It provides instant resolution of symptoms in patients with acute psychosis. This option is ideal for patients who are unresponsive to several drugs, patients who are eager to have rapid resolution of symptoms, those who developed adverse drug events with conventional drug options, and those requiring fast and effective resolution of symptoms due to gross impairments in self-care, cognition, and judgment that may affect their safety and well-being [4].

Estrogen replacement as a treatment of postpartum psychosis was also shown to be therapeutic [7] although more proof is needed to establish its efficacy. Antidepressants are also used in combination with lithium (2), but some discourage its use due to possible rapid cycling or mixed states [3].

Educating the patient and her family about the illness and the management is essential because it improves the therapeutic alliance and strengthens the decision making process of the patient about the treatment and her feelings of improvement and mastery over the illness [4].

Supportive psychotherapy is effective adjunctive treatments for acute postpartum psychosis, and usually directed at helping the patient accept the mothering role [2] [4]. This includes incorporating parenting skills, early infant interventions, family-focused therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, or interpersonal psychotherapy [13]. Contact with infant usually helps the patient to recover, but this should be supervised [2]. Support from the husband and family members is also essential [2], for example in allowing the patient to recover postdelivery from sleep loss, a precipitant of mania and psychosis [4].


There is a high rate of recovery among patients from acute postpartum psychosis [2], especially if the symptoms present less than one month postdelivery [4]. A good premorbid adjustment and a supportive family also result to a more favorable outcome [2].

This prognosis however is true only in the short-term [1]. Despite this excellent prognosis, patients are still at risk of subsequent puerperal and nonpuerperal episodes of psychosis. [1]. Patients should be informed and counselled of this risk of recurrence. Long-term stabilizing medication as well as other options to reduce the risk of recurrence must also be discussed [1]. However, contrary to the practice of most physicians, women should not be told not to bear children again [1].


There is generally an increased risk of manic or psychotic mood disorder during the puerperium [1]. Postpartum psychosis has a close relation with mood disorders [2]. In fact, most studies concluded that it is an episode of a mood disorder, usually a bipolar disorder and occasionally of major depressive disorder [2]. Since bipolar disorder has a relapsing and remitting presentation, most patients seem well prior to episode, not detected antenatally, and not in contact with mental health services, thereby failing to recognize the risks of having psychosis after delivery [1]. It was also suggested that this manic episode postpartum can be explained by the fact that women with bipolar disorder discontinue taking medication such as lithium prior to conception or during pregnancy because of fear over toxicity to the fetus [1].

Family history of bipolar disorder also increases the risk of postpartum psychosis. It was observed in 74% of mothers with bipolar disorder and a first degree relative who had postpartum psychosis, compared to only 30% of bipolar women without any family history [4]. Some authors suggest that this correlation imply that postpartum psychosis is actually a marker of a familial bipolar disorder, and that genetic factors increase the vulnerability of woman of having the episode [1].

The next best established risk factor after personal and family history of mood disorder is the parity [1]. 50-60% of the cases occur after the first obstetric delivery [2]. The risk of recurrence among patients is also high; there is a 50% chance of having the same episode after subsequent deliveries [4].

Other factors considered to increase the risk of postnatal psychosis are obstetric complication [1] [5], cesarian section [1], younger age [5], and absence of husband during peripartum stage [5]. Environmental stressors such as marital discord are also linked to psychosis [4], although data on its association with domestic violence is lacking [6].


Postpartum psychosis has a prevalence of 1-2 per 1000 childbirths [1] [2] [3]. However, its actual incidence may be higher since only the number of admissions is recorded, and a number of women opt to be treated at home [1]. 5% of the patients acted on their suicidal ideation while 4% of them committed infanticide [2]. The mean age of onset is 26.3, the age at which most women have their first or second child [4].

Sex distribution
Age distribution


The onset of postpartum psychosis is widely thought to be brought by abrupt hormonal changes in a genetically vulnerable woman [2]. The lack of evidence associating psychosocial factors, and the fact that major physiological changes occur immediately postpartum strengthen this belief on the role of biological, especially hormonal, factors in the manifestation of psychosis [1]. Psychotic episode is likely triggered by abnormal response due to genetic or familial susceptibility, in the sudden but normal changes in hormonal level particularly estrogen and progesterone in a person with no gross endocrine abnormality [1] [3]. This concept, despite widely accepted, is still subject to investigation.
Another possibility of triggering psychosis revolves around the fact that most patients have actually bipolar illness prior to pregnancy. Due to concerns over toxicity of antipsychotic drugs to the fetus, such as lithium, patients usually discontinue taking their medications [1].

The physical stress brought by delivery deprives the patient sleep, and this lack of sleep, a known trigger of mania in bipolar disorder, is also thought to be responsible for puerperal triggering of illness [8]. This aspect, however, still lacks studies and attention among investigators [1].


The NICE guideline of 2014 recommends screening for known risk factors among antenatal women, and that protocols must be in place for those at risk of developing postpartum psychosis, including risk assessments and management plan [12]. Pregnant women with previous history of bipolar disorder or with family members with history of either bipolar disorder or postpartum psychosis must be informed of the risk and should be educated on the symptoms they must recognize such as mood swings, confusion, strange beliefs, and hallucinations particularly in the first two to four weeks postpartum [4]. Before delivery, at-risk patients are advised to consult with psychiatrist to discuss treatment options and possible prophylactic management.

For women with bipolar disorder who are taking lithium prior to pregnancy, they should be discouraged from abruptly discontinuing the medication [4]. Those with history of bipolar disorder who discontinued taking lithium during pregnancy are advised to resume taking the drug immediately after delivery. Women with past postpartum psychosis may also benefit from immediate treatment of lithium postdelivery [4]. The effect of lithium in the fetus is not well-founded by evidence [1], hence discussion with a psychiatrist regarding this prophylactic treatment may be necessary.


Postpartum psychosis, also known as puerperal or postnatal psychosis, is a severe mental illness and considered an emergency [1] [2] [3] which requires inpatient psychiatric treatment to ensure the safety not only of the patient but also of her infant [3]. Strictly speaking, it is a term reserved for severely affective psychosis, either manic, depressive or schizoaffective forms, of acute onset in a previously well woman, regardless of psychiatric history [1]. Patients present with depression, delusions, and thoughts of harming either herself or her infant, which must be monitored as they may act on their suicidal or infanticidal ideations [2]. Since the prevention and management of more common obstetric complications such as hemorrhage and infection greatly improved in the past years, this leaves suicide, usually associated with postpartum psychosis, as one of the leading causes of maternal mortality in developed countries [1].

Patient Information

Postpartum psychosis is usually characterized by bizarre behavior, delusions, and feeling of being controlled by outside forces, as well as suicidal and infanticidal ideations. Symptoms usually present two to four weeks after giving birth. The present belief is that this illness is brought by abrupt but normal hormonal changes after delivery in genetically susceptible individuals. This is considered an emergency warranting inpatient management and monitoring. Adherence to medication and family support are effective in the management of postpartum psychosis. Most medications used like lithium, antiepileptic drugs, and atypical antipsychotic drugs are safe during breastfeeding, but infant must be strictly monitored. Patients usually recover in a matter of days, although there is a high risk of recurrence even during nonpregnant periods. Most patients who develop postpartum psychosis have history of bipolar disorder and with family members with the same history, hence at-risk women can be identified even prior to pregnancy and be given with prophylactic treatment to avoid having psychosis postdelivery.



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Last updated: 2019-06-28 11:11