Question: Can NICU Babies have PTSD?

Premature birth is a traumatic event for both the preemie being born early and their parents (especially the momma). If you’re worried because you’re at high risk, or you sense there might be something amiss with your precious preemie, read on. We’ve got the information, advice, and recommendations for what to do if your preemie (or you) are suffering from PTSD after their premature birth.

Do Infants Remember the Trauma of Their Birth?

A long-held belief by researchers and scientists is that infants aren’t capable of cognitively remembering trauma or stress. Because of this, most health professionals used to assume that, later in life, these children would not experience the long-term problems that severe trauma often creates. They believed that, since their cognitive memory hadn’t fully started functioning yet, the memory of their traumatic birth would fade away completely.

This article, however, published in the Journal of Perinatology in 2003, upended that belief completely. The article looked at research from various studies, which showed that preemies are at a higher risk for disturbances in their psychological, emotional, and behavioral development.

Another study, published in JAMA in 2002, concluded that preemies who were tested once they entered their respective school system were at a higher risk for low cognitive test scores. It also found that preemies suffered a higher rate of ADHD and other behavioral disorders. These are possible symptoms of having suffered from PTSD.

PTSD in Preemies is a Relatively New Concept

PTSD in soldiers coming back from a war zone has been the focus of research for a few decades, and the knowledge base is quite deep. PTSD in premature babies, however, is a newer concept and, for that reason, the research and knowledge base about the disorder is much smaller.

Indeed, a lot of what we know about PTSD in preemies today is thanks to the soldiers who came home with this debilitating condition. Still, there is very little in-depth research on the subject, and much more is needed to understand it fully. 

What We Do Know About Preemies and PTSD

Although the research is limited, there are a few facts that researchers and scientists have discovered about PTSD in premature babies. They include:

  • The features presented by PTSD concerning development are very similar among children who were born prematurely.
  • Based on the trauma that the preemie experienced in the NICU, different types and severities of PTSD can occur.
  • The criteria used to diagnose PTSD in adults is inadequate for analyzing it in infants born prematurely. This is due primarily to their inability to speak and use language to communicate. 
  • As with adults, there are therapeutic techniques that have been proven effective for treating OTSD in preemies. They include different types of play, strong family support, and, when necessary, psychoeducation. (A therapeutic intervention that helps a patient cope with their illness or condition, in this case, PTSD.)

What, Exactly, is PTSD?

For many years PTSD was referred to as “shell shock” among the members of the military. (The “shell” in shell shock refers to the artillery shells that typically tend to explode around soldiers on the battlefield. However, PTSD can be caused by many other types of shock and trauma.)

War Orphans Were Some of the First To Be Diagnosed with Trauma Similar to PTSD 

After World War II, millions of children were suffering from the effects of trauma due to the war. In 1945, a landmark study was published showing the connection between this trauma and psychological and physical problems later in life. 

The Truth Is, The NICU is a Very Traumatic Place

If you’ve ever seen the inside of a NICU when it was filled with crying preemies and busy nurses, you know what a scary, stress-inducing place it can be, even for an adult. All those wires, tubes, devices, cables, and other machines are like a nightmare come to life, especially for a newborn preemie who’s just come out of his momma’s safe, warm belly. 

Immediately after they arrive, however, a premature infant faces a wide variety of stimuli that are both painful and stressful—getting punctured by needles, having tubes placed through their nose and down into their chest, having masks strapped over their face, and, unfortunately, many more procedures that are needed to save their life. 

Even the most innocuous of these procedures are significantly different from their mother’s womb. Some of them, like open-heart surgery, are incredibly traumatic. It’s no wonder, then, that the effects of these stressors can stay with the child for years to come.

Parents, Especially Moms, Can Also Get PTSD from Premature Childbirth

Researchers are also looking at the traumatic effect that giving birth to a baby prematurely can have on the mother and any other parent present at the time of delivery. The truth is, giving birth to a baby with no complications can be stressful, but giving birth to a premature baby can double, triple, or quadruple that stress. That’s especially true if the mother suffers any type of physical trauma during the birth, which is almost always the case. (Many premature births are via C-section, which is both physically and psychologically traumatic.) 

Preventing PTSD in Preemies Starts in the NICU

Various studies have shown that caregivers in the NICU, including nurses, doctors, and therapists, are the first line of defense, if you will, for preventing PTSD in preemies. Below are a few methods that have been shown to possibly reduce its incidence, including:

  • Identifying physiological distress indicators such as increased BP and respiration, hiccups, glossy eyes, and others.
  • Using comfort methods like swaddling, aromatherapy, nesting, and audio recordings of momma’s voice.
  • Providing Kangaroos Care, a skin-to-skin form of physical bonding that has shown remarkable results.
  • While routine, a specific treatment can also be experienced as a traumatic event by a preemie. 
  • Clustering care and minimizing treatments, which will provide more recovery time between stressful procedures and tests.

Last Words

Research shows that the trauma of premature birth can be severe for both the premature baby and their parents. However, more needs to be performed before researchers can give a definitive answer about its short and long-term psychological effects. 

However, one thing is sure; it’s a traumatic event, and seeking treatment afterward for you and your baby is OK. 

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