Mental health problems after a premature birth
Some parents find the strain of coping after premature birth so overwhelming that they find it difficult to cope with day-to-day life. If you experience mental health issues after a premature birth, you may need some extra support.
There are many reasons why new parents may develop mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. Having a baby is a huge life-changing event and the first few weeks and months can be very emotional for any parent. But having a sudden, difficult or traumatic birth or spending a lot of time in a neonatal unit is something most parents don’t expect and it can be very difficult.
Research has found that parents of premature babies are more likely to experience mental health problems than parents whose babies arrived full term.
If you feel like things are getting out of control, it’s important to ask for help. Don’t hide your feelings or suffer in silence. You are not alone and help is available.
Premature birth and anxiety
Anxiety is a feeling of unease, worry or fear, that can be mild or severe. Everyone feels anxious sometimes, but some people find it hard to control their worries. Some people with anxiety also have panic attacks, which can be very frightening.
Symptoms of anxiety can include:
- a sense of dread
- feeling constantly "on edge"
- difficulty concentrating
You may also find yourself avoiding people, such as your family and friends. Talk to your GP if this anxiety is affecting your daily life or causing you distress. They can organise treatment such as talking therapy or medication.
A panic attack is when your body experiences a rush of intense mental and physical symptoms. Panic attacks can come on very quickly and for no apparent reason. Symptoms can include:
- a racing heartbeat
- a feeling of dread or fear of dying
- chest pain
- shortness of breath
- feeling faint
- shaky limbs
- a churning stomach.
Most panic attacks last for between 5 and 20 minutes. They can be very frightening, but they are not dangerous. The number of attacks you have will depend on how severe your condition is. Some people have attacks once or twice a month, while others have them several times a week.
Talk to your GP if you are having panic attacks. They can organise treatment such as talking therapy (counselling) or medication.
Premature birth and depression
Whatever your circumstances, this will not be the start to your baby’s life that you were hoping for, which can leave parents feeling very low.
This is a completely natural response to this type of situation. But if you feel sad for weeks and months you may have depression.
Treatment for anxiety and depression
The main treatments for mental health problems are self-help, talking therapies (counselling) and medication (such as antidepressants).
You may find it helpful to:
- exercise regularly (this may be difficult, but just a quick walk outside may help)
- avoid caffeine – this can stop you sleeping well and speed up your heartbeat
- eat a healthy, balanced diet
- avoid smoking and drinking, which have been shown to make anxiety worse.
Talk to your GP if you are struggling. They will help you find the best treatment for you.
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events. PTSD can develop immediately after an event or it can happen weeks, months or even years later.
Some people experience post-traumatic stress after pregnancy or birth. This may be caused by having a traumatic birthing experience. This may lead to fear of childbirth in the next pregnancy. PTSD can affect dads and partners too.
It can be very difficult to come to terms with a traumatic event, but PTSD is treatable. The important thing is to try and confront your feelings with help from healthcare professionals.
Symptoms of PTSD include:
- repetitive and distressing images or sensations
- physical sensations, such as pain, sweating, feeling sick or trembling
- feelings of isolation, irritability and guilt
- feeling ‘on edge’
- trying to avoid being reminded of the event, such as avoiding certain people or places involved
- insomnia (difficulty sleeping) and problems concentrating.
It's normal to experience upsetting thoughts after a traumatic event. But you should see a GP if you are still having problems about 4 weeks after the traumatic experience, or if the symptoms are particularly severe.
It can be very difficult to come to terms with a traumatic event, but it’s never too late to ask for help. PTSD can be treated many years after the event happened.
Find out more about post-traumatic stress disorder.
More information and support
Bliss provides support and information to parents of babies born prematurely. They have a lot of information about the impact of having a premature baby on your mental health and the support available. You can also listen to their podcast about neonatal care and parents’ mental health.
Birth Trauma Association provides information and support to women who have had a traumatic birth and their partners.
Anxiety UK is run by people with anxiety disorders, Anxiety UK offers information, support and therapies for people experiencing anxiety.
No Panic provides online and telephone support for people suffering from panic attacks, phobias, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and anxiety disorders.
MIND is a mental health charity providing information, support, local groups and an online chatroom.
BabyCentre offers a traumatic birth support group where you can chat and share your experiences with others going through the same thing.
Rape Crisis is a UK charity providing a range of services for women and girls who have experienced abuse, domestic violence and sexual assault.
Ionio, Chiara et al. Mothers and Fathers in NICU: The Impact of Preterm Birth on Parental Distress. Europe's journal of psychology vol. 12,4 604-621. 18 Nov. 2016, doi:10.5964/ejop.v12i4.1093
NHS. Generalised anxiety disorder in adults. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/generalised-anxiety-disorder/ (Page last reviewed: 19 December 2018. Next review due: 19 December 2021)
NHS. Panic Disorder. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/panic-disorder/ (Page last reviewed: 28 July 2020. Next review due: 28 July 2023)
NHS. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/ (Page last reviewed: 27 September 2018. Next review due: 27 September 2021)