• A new study shows that parents of very preterm babies experience depression and anxiety after the birth. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
A new Australian study reveals that new parents whose babies are born before 30 weeks gestation experience high levels of anxiety and depression, as their very preterm child fights for its survival at birth.
By
Yasmin Noone

19 Jul 2016 - 1:35 PM  UPDATED 19 Jul 2016 - 1:37 PM

Almost 50 per cent of parents who have very premature babies could end up battling anxiety after the birth, as they struggle with the possible health complications and unknown future of a new preterm child, a new Australian study shows.

Research from Melbourne's Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, published in JAMA Pediatrics today, indicates that 48 per cent of mothers and 47 per cent of fathers experienced anxiety after their baby was born before 30 weeks gestation.

The study finds that 40 per cent of mothers and 36 per cent of fathers had depression after a preterm birth.

It also reveals that more fathers than mothers of preterm infants experienced depression six months after the birth, with 19 per cent dads and 14 per cent of mums having depressive symptoms. This was compared to six per cent of dads and five per cent of mums, whose babies who went full-term, who were also experiencing depression.

“That’s not surprising to us, as parenthood is a shared experience but there are also extra pressures for the dads going through this as well,” says the study’s lead author and clinical psychologist, Dr Carmen Pace.

“Most dads remain involved in the day-to-day care of their infants while they are in hospital, and often juggle this with returning to work…A lot of the fathers described that they felt torn between their babies and partners.”

“There were ups and downs and a lot of feelings of hopelessness from families.”

The researchers followed 113 mothers and 101 fathers of very preterm babies born at the Royal Women’s Hospital, Melbourne between 2011 and 2013.

Parents’ symptoms of depression and anxiety were documented every two weeks until the infant’s expected birth date, and again at six months postpartum.

The study revealed that depression and anxiety improved for some parents over time but one-in-five still showed symptoms of depression and anxiety six months after the birth of their very preterm baby.

Dr Pace explains that feelings of fear, grief and shock often drove the symptoms.

“We had six babies die in our sample…Some of the babies were okay while others developed complications like respiratory distress syndrome and cerebral palsy.

“There were ups and downs and a lot of feelings of hopelessness from families.”

Dr Pace added that many parents going through depression and anxiety were also mourning the loss of months of pregnancy, and were “grieving the fact that they didn’t get to hold their babies, as they were whisked away to be resuscitated as soon as they were born”.

"Intervening and supporting parental mental health would help, not only the parents, but the child’s wellbeing as well.”

While 48 per cent of mothers and 47 per cent of fathers of very preterm babies were anxious, only 13 per cent of mothers and 10 per cent of dads whose babies went full term.

Six months after the birth of a very preterm baby, one-in-four mothers and one-in-five fathers still had feelings of anxiety, compared to 14 per cent of mothers and 10 per cent of fathers whose children were born at full-term.

There was little evidence to indicate whether parents' psychological distress was related to medical severity, time of discharge, transfer to other hospitals, or other family factors.

“Not all parents who have children born preterm will experience depression and anxiety but these parents in this study who reported depression and anxiety showed clinically significant signs of dysfunction. They are the ones we really need to watch out for,” says Dr Pace.

“We know that parental mental health is also important for the health outcomes of babies. Therefore, intervening and supporting parental mental health would help, not only the parents, but the child’s wellbeing as well.”

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