Post-traumatic stress in parents of babies in neonatal intensive care units

Supporting parents of NICU babies can reduce parental stress and increase confidence for better baby outcomes.

Michigan State University Extension recognizes that each year approximately one in 10 babies are born premature (before 37 weeks gestation) in the United States according to the Centers for Disease Control. The reasons are complex and varied. There are, however, some recommended steps to prevent premature births such as not smoking, avoiding alcohol and drugs, getting prenatal care early and knowing the warning signs of premature labor.

From a personal perspective

Even with following all of the prevention, premature births happen. I know this personally because both of my children were born at 36 weeks. I didn’t drink, smoke or do drugs. I did get early prenatal care but was not aware of the signs of premature labor. I was young (25), so it was a little hard to convince family and friends when I thought I was going into labor at about 7 months. I was right. Twice!

My babies did not spend time in Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), but both stayed in the hospital nursery for about two weeks after they were born. One under the bilirubin lights for jaundice and one in an isolate for oxygen therapy. They were both considered big for “preemies” at 5 pounds and did not have enough critical physical issues to warrant being admitted to the NICU. Even so, it was a scary, traumatic and unexpected way to start my journey as a mom.

What the research says

I read an article in Pediatrics about preventing post-traumatic stress in mothers with premature infants. It intrigued me as I looked back on my own experience. I am not comparing my experience to parents who have babies in the NICU for months. The information, however, did help me to examine some of my own parenting behaviors and considering if they were in any way affected by some form of PTSD. Especially the finding that parents of premature infants tend to be more rigid and overprotective in their parental styles. Yes. That was definitely me! I think I was the original ‘helicopter parent’. At least I have some explanation why.

Bringing home a new baby is stressful. Bringing home a “preemie” more than doubles that stress level. You worry about if they are going to stop breathing, if they are able to keep their core temperature and if you will be able to feed them. Add to all that, worrying about their basic development.

The not so good news is that all that worry can affect how your baby actually does develop because they feel your stress. It can even affect how well you and your baby bond, especially if you feel fearful when you are handling and holding them.

There is hope and help

The good news is many hospitals have established family support programs, many supported by the March of Dimes. They provide education to nursing and other care staff in the NICU about how to best support parents, babies and families. They also provide education to parents. The most important support is to give parents a chance to care for their babies before discharge, while the staff is there to guide and encourage, increasing parental caregiving confidence. Another support NICU staff should provide is to provide parents some private space to be with their infants and enable critical family bonding.

In addition, to support, pay attention to self-care. Enlist the help of family and friends to help with household chores and meal delivery, so you can bond with your baby, take care of their needs and rest when you can. Talk about your feelings, good and bad to family members. Consider seeking a counselor if you find yourself feeling sad or numb for more than two weeks. Find some easy to follow mindfulness and self-compassion guided videos to help improve your mental health. 

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