November 17th is World Prematurity Day. Today we honor those touched by a premature birth: the tiny fighters, the loving parents, and the caring providers.
The excitement of parenthood can quickly come to a halt with the birth of a premature baby. Anticipation and joy often turn to shock and fear as you begin a journey you didn’t plan or ask for. Feelings of anxiety and helplessness may consume you as you question how to parent in the environment of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Whether your NICU journey is 5 days or 5 months, vivid memories will leave a lasting imprint.
The NICU is often described as a warzone. Therefore, it’s not surprising that NICU parents are at significant risk for developing symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The trauma of the NICU does not come from one single life-threatening event, but instead from an ongoing stream of scary events, sights, and worries. The worries don’t end once a premature baby is home. Feelings of isolation, the stress of ongoing medical appointments, and fears related to the future consume preemie parents for years to come.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a disorder that can develop after experiencing any shocking, scary, or dangerous event. Research over the past decade has shown that between 40-60 percent of NICU parents develop symptoms of PTSD. Mothers tend to experience symptoms while in the NICU or shortly after discharge while fathers experience a higher rate of PTSD symptoms much later, closer to 4 months after discharge. Symptoms of PTSD can include the following:
- Flashbacks or nightmares
- Recurrent, unwanted memories of the NICU
- Avoidance (especially of places or things that remind you of the NICU)
- Startling easily, feeling anxious
Recognizing PTSD is essential to a parent and a baby’s long-term health. Untreated PTSD can lead to additional physical and emotional health challenges such as insomnia, depression, and relationship challenges. It can also hinder the ability to parent by limiting a child’s opportunities and development, treating everyday risks as life-threatening, or seeking medical care unnecessarily.
To learn more or to get help, contact our Perinatal Therapist, Courtney Daniels, LCSW, PMH-C at [email protected]