The Effects of a Partner’s Emotions Following Premature Birth of a Child

Welcoming a new baby into the world is a joyful experience, but can also be stressful for new parents. The new responsibilities and changed dynamic of adding a new person into a household can create challenges for a couple and the hormone changes that the mother experiences can also create additional stress as she navigates her new role. When the baby is born prematurely, the stress can multiply exponentially. Parents, and particularly the mother, may experience significant self-blame and guilt for the premature birth. Separation from the baby receiving care in the neonatal intensive care unit can also contribute to feelings of helplessness in the parents. Parents with a premature birth often experience high levels of anxiety while the baby is being treated in the hospital. Fears that the baby may not survive or concerns that the complications from an early birth may result in ongoing difficulties for the child may make the days after delivery traumatic. The stressor can result in symptoms of anxiety, depression and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In some cases, one partner is more affected than the other partner. A recent study examined how the emotions of one partner can influence the experience of the other. It is among the first research project to study the effects of one partner’s level of stress on the other. Led by Peter Barr from the Department of Neonatology at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children located in Sydney Australia, the researchers assessed the experiences of 67 couples who were parents of premature babies. The parents were asked to participate in an assessment one month following the delivery of a premature baby, and they also completed a self-report assessment one year after the delivery. The study’s findings showed that about 4.5 percent of the parents experienced PTSD and slightly more parents experienced symptoms of depression or anxiety caused by the premature birth. The researchers, however, noted that the experience of becoming parents and normal events before and following the delivery could also contribute to the symptoms experienced by the parents. The results showed that guilt, but not shame, could influence a partner effect in the participants examined. Parents who were prone to guilt and those who had guilt-prone partners exhibited a more intense suffering from anxiety and depression. Feelings of shame or fear of death were not shown to transfer from one partner to the other. Barr recommends that the findings be used to develop situations in which parents of premature babies are offered counseling to help identify emotions connected with guilt and shame. The identification of the emotions as well as coping skills could help the parents avoid the development of a more serious posttraumatic experience. The findings are published in a recent issue of the journal Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy.

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