Parent Trauma: When Your Child Is in the NICU

Parent Trauma: When Your Child Is in the NICU

Cici gave birth to twin daughters prematurely in her 34th week of pregnancy. Both were placed in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). At the time they were born, Cici and her husband also had a five year-old daughter and a three year-old son at home. Cici remained in the hospital with the babies for weeks while Joe cared for the older children.

Both preemies were enmeshed in tubes and wires. Hourly reports fluctuated about their condition. Lexi was born with cerebral palsy and wasn’t expected to live. Olivia was the tinier of the two, and her respiratory system was compromised. Cici listened day and night to a cacophony of monitors, respirators, and alarms in the neonatal unit as nurses and doctors rushed to respond to emergencies. She lived in a state of hyper-vigilance and perpetual terror of one or both of her babies dying.

Months later, Lexi came home—without her sister. By the time she was eight, she’d undergone thirty brain surgeries, the family was drowning in medical bills, and family relationships were fraying under the stress of continual separation.

Neonatal intensive care can create trauma for families that is unlike single-incident trauma from accidents or assault. On top of the pain of dealing with your child’s precipitous condition, parents in the NICU are exposed to other children’s suffering, an emotionally draining flow of medical information, sleep deprivation, and an unfamiliar environment where they are helpless to exercise control.

Unfortunately, many mothers and even fathers express guilt and anxiety about the early birth of their child and their inability to control a diagnosis or prognosis.

Many factors contribute to trauma symptoms for parents of children placed in a NICU, but few studies have been done to verify trauma’s impact. A  related survey conducted by the CDC reports that between 11 and 20% of women experience postpartum depression (PPD). Rates of PPD in mothers of preemies runs between 28% and 70%, according to Vasa and Kuriakose, authors of “Postpartum depression in mothers of infants in neonatal intensive care units” (Perinatol. 31:425-34).

Trauma symptoms are usually grouped into four categories: intrusive memories (uncontrollable thoughts about the event or situation, flashbacks); avoidance (trying not to think or talk about the situation and anything that reminds you of it); negative changes in thinking or mood (feeling numb, hopeless, negative, disinterested); changes in emotional reactions (outbursts, hyper vigilance, insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks, obsessive-compulsive behavior, zoning out, and being easily startled).

If you or someone you love is experiencing these or other symptoms, seek help from a trained trauma specialist. The therapists at Help for Trauma offer intensive, effective outpatient treatment for trauma rooted in all causes and for patients of all ages.

Mentoring for parents of children who are being or have been treated in a NICU is available. Hand to Hold is a peer-supported network of volunteers across the world that are paired with current NICU parents based on the similarity of their babies’ conditions and their experiences in the NICU. This free program offers parents a person to call, text, and email who knows what it’s like to navigate life in the NICU. To find out more, check out the link above.

Research also demonstrates that medical trauma for adults often merits treatment, just as any other form of trauma needs to be appropriately processed by the brain. During traumatic events, the right and left hemispheres of the brain stop communicating, and the experience becomes “stuck,” producing symptoms suck as anxiety, flashbacks, panic attacks, hyper-vigilance, and many other coping mechanisms.

Children who experience preverbal trauma such as medical trauma in a NICU, often experience symptoms of PTSD as they grow. Children can be effectively treated for PTDS as early as 2-3 years of age.

For more information, contact Help for Trauma.

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