Understanding the impact of preterm birth on the mental health of parents

The birth of a preterm infant has considerable impact on the emotional and physical well-being of the parents. Read this article to find out about the stresses that mums and dads of a preterm baby face, and what they can do to cope with it.

The birth of a baby is an emotional time for all parents; many of them experience mixed feelings of absolute joy as well as being completely overwhelmed at the same time.

However, for parents of a preterm baby, the emotions get a lot more complicated. Many preterm infants face life-threatening complications and parents of preemies will have to cope with many more additional challenges than parents of healthy full term babies.

Parents of a preemie experience a combination of emotions.

No doubt, parents of full term babies also face challenges, but what makes it particularly hard for parents of a preemie is the sheer scale and magnitude of the challenge at hand.

The birth of a preterm baby can put the mental health of the mother and father at a much higher risk.

Research as well as personal narratives reveal that most parents of preemies experience very stressful situations that can take a severe emotional toll.

Studies have shown that the rates of postnatal depression are much higher in parents after their baby is born very preterm, with rates of up to 40% in mothers soon after birth.

Stressful situations that parents of preterm babies experience

1. A sense of guilt

Despite research showing that not all causes of preterm birth are known, mothers of preemies often tend to blame themselves for the early arrival of the baby. They feel guilty and ask: what did I do or not do to cause this. Many mums tend to feel that they did or did not do something during their pregnancy which caused their baby to be born prematurely.

However, what mums need to remember is, that even if they took excellent care of themselves during pregnancy – avoided smoking and alcohol and watched their diets, they could still have a premature baby.

2. A great fear of losing the child

Watching their tiny child hooked up to dozens of wires every day can reinforce the feeling in parents that, despite all efforts, they could lose their baby. While this is stressful in itself, what does take a real emotional toll on many parents is the feeling of anticipatory grief that accompanies this fear.

Anticipatory grief is a coping mechanism which enables parents to distance themselves from the premature baby – the fear of death causes a temporary separation. However, many parents, especially mothers are left feeling that they don’t love their child anymore and this further induces feelings of guilt.

parents of preterm babies

3. Feeling of helplessness

Having their baby whisked away to Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) can make parents feel helpless. Many parents tend to feel out-of-their-depth in a NICU surrounded by medical professionals and plenty of jargon. Not only do they not understand what is really going on, they also feel unable to take care of their baby themselves.

4. Separation from baby

Parents of preterm babies barely get a chance to see their newborn before their child is taken straight to the NICU. Although they spend many of their waking (and sometimes sleeping) hours in NICU, many mothers feel the pain of not having their child right next to them.

For many mothers one of the most emotional moments is leaving the hospital without their babies (as many preterm babies often have long hospital stays).

5. Overwhelmed by disruption of day-to-day life

Having a preterm baby can completely disrupt the daily routine of a family. Often parents spend weeks and months in the NICU with their preemie; very often this means time away from each other, other children, family members and jobs.

Life with a preemie is also unpredictable. Just when the little one is doing well, things could take a turn for the worse, meaning many more hours in the NICU. This disruption and unpredictability can get overwhelming for the parents who find that it is difficult to cope with day-to-day life.

Turn to the next page to learn more about some of the emotional and other challenges that parents of peter babies go through and why it it important that they also take care of themselves while caring for the baby.

6. Nutritional Challenges

Breastfeeding can be a challenge for mothers of preemies as they have different feeding and digestive challenges from full term babies. If not properly supported during this time, most mothers can be further plagued by feelings of inadequacy and guilt.

7. Anxiety around bringing the baby home

While it is a day that parents of preemies look forward to desperately – finally bringing their baby home from the NICU can also further cause anxiety.

Not all parents feel ready and capable of taking care of their preterm babies at home, away from the medical facilities and professionals in the hospital.

parents of preterm babies

8. The baby’s development

Studies show that parents of preterm babies continue to worry about their health and well-being well after they bring them home. They worry about their child’s developmental milestones and are always worried about a setback.

Their concerns continue even when the child seems to have overcome all the initial challenges.

9. Breakdown of communication between partners

While the partners may come together initially to cope with the challenges of having a preterm baby, as time passes they find different coping mechanisms, which can be very different from each other.

While mothers may end up spending almost all their time in the NICU, fathers may need to return to work and be unable to play an active role in caring for the baby.

The emotional and the added financial stresses of having a preterm baby can strain a marriage.

Why parents of preemies need to take care of themselves

Taking care of a preterm baby can take a huge toll on the parents, which means that they need to work even harder at taking care of themselves.

Paying attention to mental health is important as parents, not just for personal well-being through this tough time, but also for the sake of your other children (if any) and family.

It is only if take care of yourself that you can take care of your child best. A little bit of taking care of yourself can go a long way in helping you during this very difficult time.

Click on next to find out what can parents of preterm babies do to take care of themselves.

Caring for self

Reach out for support

Remember, you don’t have to do this alone. Reach out to your family and friends and talk to them about the feelings and struggles that you are dealing with. If you begin to find that everything is becoming too overwhelming it might be a good idea for you reach out for professional support.

Some parents benefit from joining a support group, where they could share experiences with parents who were undergoing the same thing in life.

Eat healthfully, sleep well and get some exercise

While taking care of your mental well-being you also need to make sure that you are in good physical health. You could still be pumping milk for your preemie. This means you need to get the right nutrition into your body.

parents of preterm babies

Take some time out for your self

This is perhaps hard for parents of preemies to do, especially without guilt. But you need to be able to take sometime just for yourself, in order to recharge your emotions.

Celebrate the little breakthroughs

With many health problems to deal with, you can forget to celebrate your baby’s little moments of victory. When he beats an infection, completes a treatment, comes home – these are all moments to celebrate.

It is tough being a parent to a preemie, and only a parent who has been through the experience can truly understand the emotional roller coaster that this particular parenting journey is.

Nearly 1 in 10 babies in Singapore are born premature. Support prematurity awareness by sharing this with other mums and mums-to-be. Continue to follow Abbott’s DreamBig series, especially for parents of premature babies and pregnant mums-to-be. 

Developmental Milestones in Premature babies

About Abbott

Abbott is a global healthcare company devoted to improving life through the development of products and technologies that span the breadth of healthcare. With a portfolio of leading, science-based offerings in diagnostics, medical devices, nutritionals and branded generic pharmaceuticals, Abbott serves people in more than 150 countries and employs approximately 73,000 people.

The material is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace medical advice of a qualified healthcare professional.