The prematurity journey is so different for all of us. One preemie or multiple babies, triumphs and devastating losses, challenging pregnancies, and other factors change how premature birth shapes parents’ experiences. The things we all face are stress, uncertainty, and fear. Would it surprise you to learn that even parents whose preemies face relatively short NICU stays still experience guilt, grief, sadness, anger, and numbness? And that these feelings can last well after a preemie comes home and is thriving?
Having a baby in the NICU is a traumatic, life-changing event and may represent the most stressful and fear-ridden period we ever have in our lives. For that reason, parents of preemies are at risk of developing not only anxiety and depression, but also Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Research has shown that 75% of parents who develop anxiety following premature birth will eventually meet the criteria for PTSD. And parents of preemies who spent 70 days or more in the NICU have PTSD rates of 23-59%, with rates reflecting how ill a preemie was during that hospital stay. Dads of preemies are actually more likely to develop PTSD long after a preemie’s birth.
Are you at risk? Symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, nightmares, an inability to concentrate, prolonged feelings of unease, and feeling scared all the time – though some of these symptoms may be present with anxiety or depression. There’s an interactive screener designed to help people determine whether they may be suffering from PTSD and you can give it a try, though only a doctor can give you a diagnosis.
Of course, knowing that you have PTSD as a result of your preemie’s early birth and time in the NICU only takes you so far. The next step is caring for yourself! This may seem selfish when you still have your preemie who needs you, but know that self care is anything but selfish. When you are healthy and happy, you will be better able to be there for your baby – in or out of the NICU. Here are some strategies for coping with PTSD related to premature birth.
- Talk to a psychologist, counselor, or your doctor about how you’re feeling. Recovering from PTSD may require therapy and medication, but the first step is finding a practitioner you’re comfortable with.
- Connect with a mentor. Graham’s Foundation has a preemie parent mentor program that includes mentors who have recovered from PTSD.
- Find a PTSD-specific support group, online or local to you.
- Write about your experiences or keep a daily journal. This will help you track your feelings and process them in a healthy way.
- Share how you’re feeling with your baby’s care team. They may be able to point you toward healing resources and offer reassurance that your preemie is doing well.
- Practice self care that is small but significant. As in, remember to eat. Unload to a friend willing to listen. Allow yourself to sit still when you feel overwhelmed.
- Create a support system. When help is offered, accept it. Let others care for you so you have more energy to focus on recovering from the trauma of premature birth and its after-effects.
There’s no one size fits all solution to PTSD but there is no shame in trying this or that healing strategy only to discover it doesn’t work for you. Better to try five things and find the one thing that works than to try nothing at all! PTSD is a natural reaction to fearful times and nothing to be ashamed of. But it’s also something you can recover from with time and treatment. Doing what it takes to heal is a gift you can give your entire family.