In Parents of Premature Babies, Feelings of Guilt May Lead to Depression

New parents experience an enormous amount of stress. The birth process and transition into parenthood can create a wave of emotions in new parents. However, for parents whose child is born prematurely, the added stress and emotional volatility of having a child in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) can result in significant psychological trauma. Parents of premature babies worry about the health of their child and often fear that their child will not survive. Many develop increased levels of anxiety wondering what the outcome will be and if their child will struggle with lifelong complications as a result of being born early. Additionally, many parents also feel guilty about the circumstances of the delivery and ashamed that they were unable to carry the baby to term.

All of these negative emotions can cause many parents of premature babies to experience anxiety, depression, and even posttraumatic stress. Although there has been some research examining the effect of premature birth on parents, little is known about the partner effect of the emotional ramifications. To explore how one partner’s emotions affect the other’s, Peter Barr of the Department of Neonatology at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children in Sydney, Australia, recently led a study involving 67 couples of premature babies. The participants were assessed 1 month after the delivery and completed a self-report 1 year later.

Barr discovered that a small percentage of the parents (4.5%) had PTSD and slightly more had anxiety or depression as a result of the premature birth. However, the transition to parenthood and events prior to and after the birth could account for a portion of the psychological distress reported by the parents. Barr also found that guilt, but not shame, created a partner effect for the participants. “Thus, guilt-prone NICU parents and parents with guilt-prone partners suffered from more intense anxiety and depression,” said Barr. But feelings of shame or fear of death did not transfer from partner to partner. Barr believes that parents of premature babies could benefit from counseling that can teach them how to decipher maladaptive emotions from those that could be helpful in such a stressful situation and could potentially aid in posttraumatic growth.

Barr, P. (2012). A dyadic analysis of negative emotion personality predisposition effects with psychological distress in neonatal intensive care unit parents. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy 4.4: 347-355.

Related articles:
How Emotion Can Affect Infant Development
Mommy Guilt, Part 2: Case Illustration
Men Becoming Fathers

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  • Kayla S

    Kayla S

    August 6th, 2012 at 5:15 PM

    I had a preemie, and I did not feel any of that guilt. Yes I was scared and worried naturally but I knew that I did not do anything to cause it. In some cases, like mine, there is no clear explanation. You take care of yourself the whole time you are pregnant and everything looks good, but there are still times where babies just decide that they need to come early. I really wish that doctors would stress this more to women. I know that it is not ideal for a baby to be so early and that in many cases it could be very dangerous for the child, but science and medicine are so advanced now that babies have a such higher rate of survival than they once had. I really do not mean to make this a small deal at all, but you don’t have to feel guilty when there is nothing that you could have done to prevent it.

  • melinda


    August 6th, 2012 at 7:00 PM

    wow,never thought about this as being common for parents of premature babies although I had a friend who gave birth to a premature baby in the past.the little boy is five years old now and is perfectly fine.yes,she was concerned back then but I hope she is not carrying any of that psychological baggage now.

  • craig


    August 7th, 2012 at 11:50 AM

    I know it is the general feeling of a parent but they need to be told and they need to realize that it is something that is not in their control.a baby being born prematurely is not in their control.what is even more important is realizing that worrying and being depressed over it can render them incapable of doing the things that ARE in their control!

  • peter


    August 7th, 2012 at 4:02 PM

    My wife and I had a premature baby who died and for the longest time we questioned what we could have done to change things to ensure that this wouldn’t happen again. We like to have control over our lives but we came to realize that there was no easy answer, we could not have changed it, and that this must have been part of God’s plan for us.
    Now we have four healthy children, all of whom went full term and whom we are so proud of and grateful for. We try not to dwell too much on that which we have lost and instead focus on the so much that we have been given.

  • Mel


    August 7th, 2012 at 7:34 PM

    @peter:I am happy to know you have been able to overcome the grief of your loss and have learnt to cherish what is present rather than blame yourself over a loss that you had no control over.

    It is very heartbreaking that couples that lose a child are further troubled with thoughts such as these and even trauma in some cases.I wish there was a way to help them.Maybe there should be something to help such couples cope,within medical facilities.This would ensure a timely intervention and can eventually only lead to better things.

  • Malachi


    August 8th, 2012 at 4:27 AM

    I agree with Mel.

    I strongly think that the hospitals need to do more for famililes with after care opportunities than what they currently do. Now it’s like you have the baby and then if things don’t work out and you don’t ever get the chance to take your child home with you, it can almost feel as if they are turning you loose and just shuffling the next family through because they need the bed space. I think that’s kind of callous and really goes against what the medical community should stand for in the end. I think that we need to have more clinicians in place to address these issues when they arise and so that the family will then have an objective listener at hand who can help them through this sort of difficult grief process.

  • pru


    August 9th, 2012 at 4:54 AM

    There is no need in experiencing depression over this, because there is nothing that you can do to prevent it.
    Well, I guess some moms could take better care of them selves, but if you know that you have done everything right, then you just can’t believe that you are responsible for this.
    Doesn’t mean that you can’t experience that sadness, because any of us would be sad to lose a child or to watch him struggle for life, but if you want to have naother child, then you have to stay focused on that and not get mired down in the loss.

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