NICU Parents and PTSD: Could This Be You?

NICU parents and PTSD are a combination no one wants to acknowledge. But as this post shows, the duo is alive and kicking in many, many parents.

Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) doctors and nurses know that a stay in NICU can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in preemies. But a recent study shows that a NICU parents are at risk of developing PTSD, too.

NICU Babies and PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can occur after someone sees or experiences a traumatic event involving the threat of injury or death. With that definition in mind, it’s not hard to understand why small children who have undergone serious medical treatment develop PTSD. This response in young children is well-documented. Most large hospitals have rained therapists, known as child life specialists, who help kids overcome and avoid PTSD.

NICU Parents and PTSD

But, according to Laurie Tarken’s recent article in the New York Times, parents of NICU preemies also are prone to developing PTSD. According to the article, “parents of NICU infants experience multiple traumas, beginning with the early delivery, which is often unexpected.”

The author of one study, Dr. Richard J. Shaw, an associate professor of child psychiatry at Stanford and the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital says, “The second trauma is seeing their own infant having traumatic medical procedures and life-threatening events, and also witnessing other infants going through similar experiences.”

“And third, they often are given serial bad news,” he continued. “The bad news keeps coming. It’s different from a car accident or an assault or rape, where you get a single trauma and it’s over and you have to deal with it. With a preemie every time you see your baby the experience comes up again.”

What About You?

If you want to know more about PTSD in NICU parents, lick on this link, For Parents on NICU, Trauma May Last, to access the entire article. You have to register to become an online New York Times subscriber, but it’s free and the piece is well worth the read.

For me, the article explained a comment made by the therapist who recently treated our son’s PTSD, which was caused by early medical trauma. (Child life specialists weren’t readily available way back in 1982 when he was born and spent three weeks in NICU.)  On the last day of Allen’s successful treatment, the kindly therapist looked at me and asked, “What about you, Mom?”

I didn’t understand why he asked the question at the time, but now I do. He realized that I had suffered trauma, too. His simple, caring question validated emotions I’d hidden for years. His words were healing balm to my soul.

Now I want to pass the balm on to you in case you need healing, too: Moms and Dads of NICU kids, what about you?

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  1. Michelle G Michelle G
    January 16, 2011    

    After 25 years as a psychotherapist for adults I am now working in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. I do not question that trauma occurs with these infants, however, I have been looking for information on how to interface with infants to help ameliorate the trauma. I would love to be directed to anyone who is working in this area.

  2. January 17, 2011    

    Dear Michelle,

    Thanks for working with NICU infants. I suggest you call the Intensive Trauma Therapy Institute in Morgantown, WV and talk to Louis Tinnin. Their contact information can be found at Tell the receptionist I referred you to them.


  3. amy amy
    February 23, 2011    

    I am a nursing student and I will be speaking to families who have a child/children in the NICU. I am speaking to them about the stress of having a baby in the nicu and how to cope with it all. I was wondering if you have any advice or printable materials I could share with them. I also had a baby in the NICU for 3 weeks. Thanks

  4. February 24, 2011    

    Hi Amy,

    Thanks for contacting me. How wonderful to use your baby’s NICU experience to teach other nursing students. You are doing the students and the parents they may meet a great service. How is your baby now?

    I will contact you via emails concerning the printable material.


  5. Gwen Gwen
    August 10, 2011    

    OMG- my twins were 6 weeks preemie and spent 8 weeks in the NICU it was very hard and it was a struggle just to get them discharged… Now as I read this my girls as 12 weeks old and I understand what I’m going through. It makes sense and I wish the NICU had more than Chaplins coming around asking probing questions that would often make me cry.

  6. August 12, 2011    

    Hi Gwen,

    I’m so glad to hear your babies are home now. If you need help, contact the social worker or child life specialist at the hospital. if they can’t help, email me and we can visit about it.


  7. Nina Nina
    November 29, 2011    

    I had a very traumatic premature birth with my daughter June 2010. She was in the NICU for 31 excruciating days. I am a pediatric nurse, but now when I see a newborn baby I want to cry. It is an overwhelming flood of emotions. I was warned by the lactation consultant at the hospital that it is not uncommon for NICU mommies to experience PTSD. My daughter is almost 18 months old now, and I find that these floods of emotions have not subsided, and it is now to the point where I can not watch the delivery of a child on the television with out starting to cry. No matter how much I try to rationalize with myself that everything is OK, and in the end we have a happy, healthy, little girl, I can not stop these floods of emotions. I just wish there was more information out there for mommies like me.

  8. November 30, 2011    

    Hi Nina,

    You are not alone in those emotions and reactions. Treatment is available. Look for an email from me in your inbox. We can talk more via private email, if you like.


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Meet Jolene

Jolene Philo is a published author, speaker, wife, and mother of a son with special needs.



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