NICU Life and the Risk of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

This is an article originally posted a few years ago.

I recently came across this article in the NY Times related to the risk of post traumatic stress disorder in parents of babies who have spent time in a NICU. For anyone who has had a baby in the NICU, you understand just how stressful a time it can be. My son was born at 31 weeks gestation but was healthy considering his prematurity and really just spent the next five weeks in hospital “feeding and growing”. Yet, the experienced of seeing him so small and frail, poked and examined, stuck with endless needles, attached to wires, and attached to IV lines in eventually every appendage including his head, did certainly cause a lot of stress and anxiety. It took me a long time to come to terms with the experience and bring myself to a place where I could grieve the loss of my expected pregnancy and childbirth experience. I believe my son also still deals with the impact of his premature birth everyday; not in obvious ways, but in smaller more subtle aspects like personality and his ability to cope with stress.

I wonder how exclusively pumping would factor into the risk of post traumatic stress in mothers of preemies? I know when I was pumping I felt like it was a battle and I was very often just operating on adrenaline. The battle was to provide what I could for my son, since I felt as though my body had let him down resulting in his premature birth. The fear of illness that is mentioned in the article, I attempted to alleviate by providing breast milk. The thought or mention of weaning was enough to put me over the edge and cause great stress. Would this all have been different if my son was born full term? I don’t know, but I imagine some of my fear and anxiety would at least have been reduced.

I am particularly struck by the mention that once parents are ready to start discussing the experience, those around them are not interested in talking about it anymore. This is so true and I think true as well for mothers who exclusively pump. While you are in the experience, your focus must be on doing the job and making it through the other side. There is no luxury of "dealing with it." But once you get to a place where you can breathe again and are capable of sorting through your emotions and experiences, it seems the world has moved on.

What are your experiences with the NICU? Is the trauma and stress something that you carry around with you? Do you think Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is common in NICU parents? What about in exclusively pumping moms? What kind of support did you receive to help you cope with your experience?

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