Premature birth is a distressing event for parents, and it’s not uncommon for some to report symptoms of post-traumatic stress for several years following the birth. Some parents notice changes in their sleep, eating, mood and engaging with others and may have difficulties in adjusting to having the baby at home. Seeking specific, trauma-related psychological intervention early on can really help.
Why mental health can be affected after having a premature baby
An early arrival and a baby in neonatal care will mean facing a sudden change of plans. Initial reactions for many are of shock followed by the relief provided through the safety of the medical and nursing care within the unit. The loss of the prepared for progress and completion of pregnancy and the birth experience often follow shock.
Loss requires grieving, so take steps to talk things through with someone who understands and to express and experience the emotions that accompany grief, such as anger and sadness. Many mothers may be impacted by the lack of predictability of the process and feel unprepared to deal with the challenges that lie ahead, increasing a sense of helplessness and anxiety.
Some may experience feelings of failure, which may lead to loss of self-confidence and low mood. All of these responses may be amplified if there were issues around low self-esteem and confidence as well as mental ill health issues prior to the pregnancy.
Connecting with your premature baby
When you feel ready to, catch up on lost experiences by being as involved as you can in your baby’s care. Separation from the baby whilst on the unit may lead to parents missing the physical and emotional closeness that helps in the early relationship. Be involved in as many activities as possible, will help to build and strengthen your connection with your baby.
Anxiety about the baby’s wellbeing, loss of confidence, feeling overwhelmed by the responsibility of a premature baby’s needs and sadness of delayed experiences such as breastfeeding can all impact on your mood. Joining support groups and accessing help through perinatal mental health teams early in the process is really beneficial.
The support system (e.g., doctors, midwives and nurses) around parents who have had a premature baby need to recognise the emotional impact of the process (that can often go on for a long time after the baby leaves NICU) and be ready to signpost to specialist mental health intervention.