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Mental health in new parents: what effect does having a premature baby have?

While having a baby brings many new and exciting experiences, research shows that women are at their highest lifetime risk for mental ill health in the time before and after having a baby, and it is well known that postnatal depression is a common experience for many new mums. In Australia, almost 16% of new mothers experience postnatal depression, and although there is less research on dads, around 10% of fathers may also experience depression before or after having baby.

Given that these are general population rates, it is important to consider parents’ wellbeing when they face the extra challenge of their baby being born too early. Preterm birth, by definition, is when a baby is born prior to 37 weeks gestation. Within this group, those children born prior to 32 weeks are classified as very preterm. There are now over 5,000 babies born very preterm every year in Australia, and it is the mental health of the parents of these babies that our research group is particularly interested in.

When a baby is born early, parents often describe great fear, feelings of helplessness, unmet expectations, shock and confusion, disruption to routine, as well as inherent separation from their baby while in Neonatal Intensive and Special Care Units. Fathers often also describe feeling torn between their partner and their baby, who are both in need of extra support. It isn’t surprising then, that rates of postnatal depression are much higher in parents after their baby is born very preterm, with rates of up to 40% of mothers soon after birth. Less is known about mental health in fathers, but results from one small study suggested they too are at elevated risk of depression after the birth of a very preterm baby.

Furthermore, the challenges for these families often do not end once their baby is discharged from hospital. Research from our own group has found that mothers of babies who were born very preterm are still more likely to experience clinically significant mental health problems when their children were two and seven years of age.

Paying attention to mental health in parents is not only important for parents’ own wellbeing, but also for their children. Parental mental health is known to be important for social, emotional and behavioural development in children as they reach preschool and beyond.

Here at Melbourne Childrens’ Campus in conjunction with the Royal Women’s Hospital we are conducting a longitudinal study on mental health in parents after very preterm birth. This study  is one of the largest and most extensive examinations of parental mental health after very preterm birth to our knowledge, including both mothers and fathers, examining depression and anxiety every two weeks in the early period after the birth of a preterm baby, and then at several key time points throughout early childhood. We hope that our results guide intervention, and ultimately better outcomes for families of very preterm babies.

The special challenges that some parents of babies born prematurely face are increasingly becoming recognised. If you have a baby who was born prematurely and are feeling like you are struggling to cope or need more support, your baby’s care team, maternal child health nurse or GP are all excellent places to begin to find extra support. There are also many support groups, including Life’s Little Treasures Foundation and Miracle Babies Foundation, and excellent information about prematurity available at Raising Children Network

Futher information and support:

General support:

  • Lifeline: 131 114
  • Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636
  • Lifeline Suicide Helpline: 1300 651 251
  • Maternal and Child Health Line: 132 229
  • Parentline: 132 289
  • Mensline: 1300 789 978
  • PANDA: 1300 726 306

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