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.
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