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PTSD in Mothers of Premature Infants

By Salisha Maharaj on 19 October, 2019

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Becoming a mother is an enormous life transition, preceded by the experience of childbirth, which often brings about a heightened sense of vulnerability.

In the post-partum period, women often experience an instinctual need to protect their new baby. At the same time, the baby can seem fragile and foreign, and women often have a sense of needing to learn about and get to know this new entity in their lives. This can raise the mom's own questions about her capacity to bond, nurture, and provide for the needs of this tiny, dependent being, and bring to the fore her own early experiences. Skin-to-skin contact is one of the ways moms and babies can begin to feel connected in this early period.

Having a premature baby can deeply challenge some of these instincts and expectations. The baby may appear even more fragile than expected, rousing deep anxieties about the baby's robustness and mom's anxieties about keeping baby alive. Baby's apparent fragility might leave mom feeling frightened to handle and take care of baby, impacting on early bonding. If the baby spends time in Neonatal ICU, mom may struggle with feelings of helplessness, and may feel traumatised by the medical interventions required to keep her tiny baby alive. While NICU units often take this into account and try to hold mom's anxieties and facilitate closeness between mom and baby, this can still be a very difficult experience.

Salisha highlights that therapists need to be attuned to the possibility of PTSD symptoms, where moms may be vulnerable to PTSD symptoms such as hyper-arousal, re-experiencing, flashbacks, and other related difficulties.

Watch Salisha, senior psychologist at Tygerberg Hospital, talk about what to bear in mind when working with moms of premature infants. Salisha works with mothers, babies, and families. Her full, CPD-accredited talk on family therapy is available here and her article on Kangeroo Care can be read here


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