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

Share this article with other mums

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.

Preemies Preview Newborn