Objective: To test whether critical incident stress debriefing after childbirth reduces the incidence of postnatal psychological disorders.
Design: Randomised single-blind controlled trial stratified for parity and delivery mode.
Setting: Two large maternity hospitals in Perth.
Participants: 1745 women who delivered healthy term infants between April 1996 and December 1997 (875 allocated to intervention and 870 to control group).
Intervention: An individual, standardised debriefing session based on the principles of critical incident stress debriefing carried out within 72 hours of delivery.
Main outcome measures: Diagnosis of stress disorders or depression in the 12 months postpartum, using structured psychological interview and criteria of the Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 4th edition.
Results: Follow-up information was available for 1730 women (99.1%), 482 of whom underwent psychological interview. There were no significant differences between control and intervention groups in scores on Impact of Events or Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scales at 2, 6 or 12 months postpartum, or in proportions of women who met diagnostic criteria for a stress disorder (intervention, 0.6% v control, 0.8%; P = 0.58) or major or minor depression (intervention, 17.8% v control, 18.2%; relative risk [95% CI], 0.99 [0.87-1.11]) during the postpartum year. Nor were there differences in median time to onset of depression (intervention, 6 [interquartile range, 4-9] weeks v control, 4 [3-8] weeks; P = 0.84), or duration of depression (intervention, 24 [12-46] weeks v control, 22 [10-52] weeks; P = 0.98).
Conclusions: There is a high prevalence of depression in women during the first year after childbirth. A session of midwife-led, critical incident stress debriefing was not effective in preventing postnatal psychological disorders, but had no adverse effects.