In the article "Identifying, Understanding, and Working with Grieving Parents in the NICU, Part I: Identifying and Understanding Loss and the Grief Response" published in Neonatal Network in 2005, I expressed some of my thoughts based on the research up to that time:
Hospitalization of a child can be a traumatic stressor for the family. NICU parents are at increased risk of having impaired relationships with the infant along with developing depression and anxiety-related disorders, including post traumatic stress disorder. The ability of parents to cope with the NICU crisis and its aftermath can directly affect the infant’s development.Thankfully the research seems to be supporting what parents have known all along about the stressful and traumatic nature of having a newborn in the NICU.
Parental stress in the NICU has a short-term impact on the establishment of the parent-child relationship, with potential repercussions on the child’s long-term development. Many articles document the psychological, medical, and economic benefits of considering the emotional needs of parents with children in the NICU or PICU.
(See the Neonatal Article for full citations)
New Findings Acute Stress, PTSD and the NICU
An article published in Psychosomatics in Spring 2009 looked at "The relationship between acute stress disorder and post traumatic stress disorder in the neonatal intensive care unit." The research conducted by physicians and researcher at Stanford University School of Medicine investigated the number of parents experiencing PTSD four months after the birth of their premature or sick infant. They also looked at the relationship between PTSD and acute stress disorder experienced by parents immediately after birth.
At the end of their study they concluded:
The relatively high levels of psychological distress experienced by parents coupled with the potential negative outcomes on the parent and infant suggest that it is important to try to prepare parents for the expected psychological reactions that may occur in the event of a NICU hospitalization and also to support parents during the transition to home care.Another recent study published in Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics was conducted at the Children's Hospital in Los Angeles (University of Southern California). Researchers in this study investigated acute posttraumatic stress symptoms among urban mothers with newborns in the neonatal intensive care unit. They discovered that "having a newborn in the NICU had a significant association with the number of mothers' acute posttraumatic stress symptoms." These PTSD symptoms experienced by the NICU mothers were not fully explained by their symptoms of depression or prior lifetime history of traumatic events.
Ways to Help NICU Parents
Key findings of ways to help parents from the Stanford Study are:
- Preparing NICU parents of what they might experience.
- Supporting NICU parents in the transition home.
So two of the ways to help prevent NICU parents from getting PTSD appear to be through education and support. NICU parents need to be educated about what to expect while in the NICU and what to expect once they are home. In addition NICU parents need to be supported both in the NICU and once they are home.
Dyer KA. 2005. Identifying, Understanding, and Working with Grieving Parents in the NICU, Part I: Identifying and Understanding Loss and the Grief Response. Neonatal Network May/June 24(4):35-46.
Shaw RJ, Bernard RS, Deblois T, Ikuta LM, Ginzburg K, Koopman C. 2009. The relationship between acute stress disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder in the neonatal intensive care unit. Psychosomatics. Mar-Apr;50(2):131-7.
Vanderbilt D, Bushley T, Young R, Frank DA. 2009. Acute posttraumatic stress symptoms among urban mothers with newborns in the neonatal intensive care unit: a preliminary study. J Dev Behav Pediatr. Feb;30(1):50-6.
Holditch-Davis D, Bartlett TR, Blickman AL, Miles MS. 2003. Posttraumatic stress symptoms in mothers of premature infants. J Obstet Gynecol Neonatal Nurs. Mar-Apr;32(2):161-71.
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