Postnatal psychosis is a serious mental condition that can occur after birth and can affect any new mum. It’s important to seek treatment immediately and to understand help is available for this challenging condition.

What is postnatal psychosis?

Postnatal psychosis – also called postpartum psychosis or puerperal psychosis – is the onset of psychosis after giving birth. This is not the same as postnatal depression. “Psychosis” refers to a loss of reality and may present as:

  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Paranoia
  • Thoughts of harming oneself or one's baby

Postnatal psychosis can occur anytime from within a few hours of giving birth up to a few months after birth.

Roughly one to two women in every 1000 will experience postnatal psychosis; it is a relatively rare condition. However the condition can be severe, so it is crucial to seek treatment to ensure the safety of the mother and her baby.

What are the symptoms of postnatal psychosis?

Symptoms can vary depending on whether the patient is in a state of psychosis (detachment from reality), mania (high energy, rapid mood swings), or depression (low mood).

Signs of postnatal psychosis can include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Significant changes in behavior from before giving birth
  • Delusional or irrational thoughts
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations of sounds, smells, or sights that are not there
  • Nonsensical speech
  • Confusion about who is around them
  • Confusion about the time of day
  • Racing thoughts
  • Mood swings
  • Thoughts of harming themselves or the baby

What causes postnatal psychosis?

The exact cause of postnatal psychosis is unknown. Theories about what may contribute to the condition include:

  • Sleep deprivation
  • Rapid hormonal changes
  • The physical stress of delivery, particularly if there were complications or other medical issues
  • A genetic predisposition; increased risk if there is a history of postnatal psychosis or bipolar disorder in the family
  • History of bipolar disorder in the mother

Postnatal psychosis is not a reflection of bad parenting or relationship issues between the parents and can happen to any new mother. It often comes on quickly and unexpectedly, so it can be scary for the mother and also those around her.

If you or someone you know is exhibiting signs of postnatal psychosis, seek help immediately – whether it’s your GP, support services, or even the local emergency department.

How is postnatal psychosis managed?

The treatment environment might be a mother-baby psychiatric unit in a hospital where the baby stays with the mother under supervision. Alternatively, when the baby can be otherwise cared for, and professionals deem it best to separate mother and baby temporarily, the mother may visit an adult psychiatric care environment.

Medication is often involved in the treatment of postnatal psychosis. Your doctor and psychiatrist can provide more information about medication.

Counseling can be helpful in recovery from an episode of psychosis. The experience can be traumatic for the mother, as her sense of reality has been altered.

If you or someone you know could be experiencing postnatal psychosis, seek professional medical support. If you have questions about what steps you need to take, you can contact Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia (PANDA).

You can call the PANDA helpline on 1300 726 306 from Monday to Friday between 9 am and 7:30 pm (AEDT/AEST).

If you need urgent help outside of hours, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.