Parents of premature babies more likely to suffer depression, study finds

AM By Bridget Brennan WhatsApp

Premature baby lies in a crib in a neonatal unit (generic)

The study examined more than 200 mothers and fathers of premature babies born prior to 30 weeks. ABC News

Australian researchers say they are alarmed at the high levels of depression and anxiety suffered by parents of premature babies.

A Murdoch Children’s Research Institute study released today suggests parents of very preterm babies are seven times more likely to battle depression.

The study found 40 per cent of mothers and 36 per cent of fathers suffered from depression in the early weeks after the birth of a premature baby.

That compared with 5 to 6 per cent of parents with depression after the birth of a full-term baby (born after 37 weeks’ gestation).

Anxiety levels of parents of premature babies were also well above average.

“In those initial weeks [after birth], we found quite high rates of clinically significant symptoms of depression and anxiety in mums and dads,” lead author Dr Carmen Pace said.

Dr Pace’s team studied more than 200 mothers and fathers of premature babies born prior to 30 weeks at the Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne.

Dr Pace said it was the first longitudinal study of its kind to include detailed analysis of Australian mothers and fathers of premature babies.

“We never actually set out to compare mums and dads in this study but it’s come out that they were pretty similar rates right throughout,” she said.

She said parents often felt grief and uncertainty after a premature birth.

One in five parents were still suffering from anxiety and depression six months after a premature birth, the study revealed.

Profound impact on entire family

Melbourne parents Radford and Kirsten White said they found it difficult to relive the four months they spent in intensive care in 2013 with their twins, Rupert and Maisie.

A family photo showing Radford and Kirsten White holding their twins.Photo Radford and Kirsten White with their twins, Rupert and Maisie. Supplied

The twins were born via an emergency caesarean at 29 weeks’ gestation, when doctors discovered Rupert was not getting enough blood from the placenta.

Ms White said the experience had a profound impact on her family.

“You can’t sit in that place for nearly four months and see what we saw and not come out affected by it,” she said.

Mr White said in 2013 he and his wife were committed to being with their babies in hospital as much as possible.

“We thought, ‘what’s the greatest thing we can give the kids?’ and the greatest thing we could give them is to just carry on like this is just a normal birth,” he said.

That meant long days in the neonatal intensive care unit.

“We’d get there at 8:00 in the morning, Kirsten would stay until 3:00 in the afternoon. I’d go back to work and then return from work about 5.30pm and I’d be there until 10.30pm or 11:00 at night,” Mr White said.

The twins required medical attention from several specialists for two years.

The White family just celebrated the twins’ third birthdays, and said their children were now healthy and happy.

Ms White said she hoped parents of premature babies would receive more support and education.

Mr White has been growing a beard for 32 weeks which he plans to shave off on Father’s Day to raise money for a fathers group in the neonatal intensive care unit at the Royal Women’s Hospital.