Parents of NICU babies have been found to be at risk for developing stress disorders, according to research. It is very scary for parents to see their infant hooked up to monitors or undergoing serious medical procedures. Every parent’s reaction to the NICU journey is different and what is overwhelming or traumatic for one person might not be for another. But for some parents, it is possible for feelings of fear, grief, helplessness and continued anxiety to result in a stress disorder.
What is a stress disorder?
Stress disorders include ASD (acute stress disorder) or PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). These can develop in anyone who has seen or lived through a crisis or terrible event. You may have heard about PTSD in the news – many military veterans returning from active duty have developed it. The prolonged stress of deployment or the witnessing of traumatic events can trigger debilitating symptoms. But, PTSD can occur in anyone who has gone through a traumatizing event, including a NICU experience.
Every parent comes to the NICU with varying coping mechanisms, and react or handle the situation in their own, unique way. According to Stanford University researcher Dr. Richard Shaw, the NICU experience can be so traumatic that almost 60% of NICU parents were found to be at risk for PTSD. In some cases, the stress disorder continues for years after the baby’s birth.
It might seem logical that the longer a baby stays in the NICU, the more traumatic the experience may be for the parents. However, research shows that the impact of a shorter NICU stay, even less than two weeks, can lead to a parent developing ASD or PTSD. A stress disorder can occur along with postpartum depression (PPD), too.
How do ASD and PTSD differ?
ASD and PTSD share many of the same symptoms. The biggest difference between the two is when a parent’s symptoms begin.
- ASD refers to symptoms that begin during the period from 2 days following an event up to 4 weeks post trauma. (The “trauma” in this case is the baby’s experiences in the NICU.) Symptoms usually start to occur while the baby is still in the NICU. ASD is a good indicator that the parent may later develop symptoms of PTSD.
- PTSD symptoms occur later than ASD, starting from at least 4 weeks post trauma, and can last for years.
Both ASD and PTSD include symptoms such as trouble sleeping or staying awake, avoiding reminders of the event, and experiencing flashbacks, dreams/nightmares.
Additional symptoms of ASD include a lack of emotional responsiveness – you feel numb and like you’re in a fog.
Other symptoms of PTSD symptoms include physical responses (like a racing heartbeat or sweating) when reminded of the event, a depressed mood, persistent and exaggerated negative beliefs about yourself, little interest in activities, irritability, difficulty concentrating, hyper vigilance and startling easily.
What can lessen the likelihood of developing a stress disorder?
Researchers have found that NICU parents cope better when they:
- feel involved with their baby’s care, such as reading to their baby, practicing kangaroo care (skin to skin bonding), decorating the isolette, taking the baby’s temperature, etc.
- feel heard – they feel free to ask questions and fully understand what is happening to their baby in the NICU.
- take care of themselves.
- reach out and receive support from other NICU parent graduates who have been in their situation. March of Dimes offers an online community, Share Your Story, which is specifically designed to provide support and comfort to parents of babies in the NICU.
- understand that the feelings of fear, anxiety, sleep interruption or loss of appetite might pop up unexpectedly once they go home.
The NICU experience can be difficult and even traumatizing. If you or someone you know has a baby in the NICU, please share this post with them so that they get the help they need. Parents suffering from ASD or PTSD can receive treatment from a healthcare provider who is trained in stress disorders (such as a social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist).
Have questions? Text or email them to AskUs@marchofdimes.org.