Having a premature baby can have a life-changing impact on parents’ mental health, even after their child has been discharged from hospital and brought home.
Two thirds (65%) said they had high stress levels, while two fifths (41%) struggled with low mood.
Previous studies have also found 10 times higher risks of postnatal depression among parents of premature babies, with hospital records showing that a third of mums and almost two-fifths of dads were diagnosed with the condition after their babies were born too soon.
Around 60,000 babies are born prematurely (before 37 weeks of pregnancy) each year in the UK, leaving them vulnerable to serious health problems. Premature birth is the leading cause of death, illness and disability in babies.
Premier League footballer Ben Mee has teamed up with Tommy’s to raise awareness and help other parents of premature babies, after his daughter, Olive, arrived extremely prematurely last May.
The Burnley captain’s wife, Sarah, went into labour at around 24 weeks, and their little girl weighed just 1lb 2oz when she was born two days later, needing blood transfusions and a ventilator to breathe.
“We had to wait five hours to see her, which felt like forever, and because of Covid restrictions in hospitals we could only visit one at a time,” recalls Mee.
“Sarah got so emotional she collapsed, which was tough because I wanted to look after her as well as Olive. Seeing how tiny she was – all the wires, tubes, beeping monitors – was overwhelming and scary. I felt so daunted, just sitting by the incubator, not knowing what to say or do. Holding her for the first time was nerve wracking, but the care team reassured me she was sturdier than she looked.”
Although specialist care can predict and sometimes prevent premature birth, the new research highlights that around three quarters (74%) of parents didn’t know they were at risk before their baby was born early.
This lack of awareness puts more stress on families at an already difficult time, as they only learn about the dangers of premature birth while personally going through it.
Most (56%) of the parents surveyed said they felt guilty, or like they had failed (54%), after their babies were born early. Around three quarters (73%) said that other people didn’t understand what they were going through, and half (53%) didn’t even have the information they needed to understand what was happening themselves.
“It’s difficult to mentally process everything you go through when your baby is born too soon, which is why I’m so passionate about campaigning with Tommy’s to help other families,” says Mee.
“If we can predict more premature births, hopefully we can prevent them, or at least give families the support they so desperately need.”
The mental health impacts of having a premature baby can be acute while your child is having medical care, but also continue long after they come home.
Siobhan Triplett and her husband Aaron had already suffered two losses – one miscarriage and one stillbirth – when they became pregnant for a third time with their daughter, Maple, in 2016.
At 25 weeks pregnant, the couple, from Greater Manchester, were in Brighton for a family wedding when Triplett’s waters broke. She was rushed to hospital and given an emergency C-section, and Maple was born.
“She was so tiny and delicate that it was 13 days before I could hold her,” she recalls.
After 104 days in hospital, the day after her due date, the couple finally brought Maple home – but the anxiety they’d felt in the hospital continued.
“She’d had such amazing care that I was scared to be the ones in charge and worried we’d do something wrong,” says Triplett. “As we first walked into the house, her oxygen tube caught on the door and got pulled straight off. You quickly learn how to cope with things, but there was a lot of anxiety and stress.”
When Triplett fell pregnant again with her son Lycan in 2019, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong, even though the “pregnancy was very smooth”. Lycan was also born prematurely, at 30 weeks and six days, but was doing well and discharged within three weeks.
“I was very anxious and scared because he seemed to be doing too well; I just wasn’t used to having a healthy child,” says Triplett. “He was perfectly well, so I didn’t want to bother the GP and I was reluctant to burden friends with my anxiety, but I just couldn’t get it out of my head that something must be wrong.”
She’s since learned about Tommy’s Parenting After Loss support group, which is somewhere she goes to share any worries with others in the same situation.
The charity has also recently launched the ‘My Prem Baby’ support app, offering specific help for parents of premature babies.
Tommy’s chief executive Jane Brewin said: “Pregnancy and parenting should be an exciting journey, but when babies are born too soon, it often presents unique challenges that mean families need some expert guidance.
“We need to raise awareness and improve understanding of premature birth, so that people aren’t learning about it while going through it and struggling to cope with so much at once. Premature birth is often unexpected, but it shouldn’t be; with the right care, we can not only predict it but prevent it.”
Help and support:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).
- CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer a helpline open 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service.
- Sands works to support anyone affected by the death of a baby.
- Tommy’s fund research into miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth, and provide pregnancy health information to parents.
- Saying Goodbye offers support for anyone who has suffered the loss of a baby during pregnancy, at birth or in infancy.