New research in the United States has found that fathers of premature babies show even higher stress levels than mothers for up to two weeks after taking their new baby home.
Carried out by researchers from Northwestern Medicine, the study looked for the first time at the stress levels of fathers during the tense transition between preemies being in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and being taken home for the first time.
The team recruited 86 parents for the research and assessed their stress levels using salivary tests to measure cortisol levels and by paper surveys. Participants were tested the day before the preemies were discharged from the hospital, then one day, five days and 14 days after coming home.
“One day of being stressed at home is not a big deal,” explained lead author Dr Craig Garfield. “But if their levels are still high after two weeks, that’s more concerning.”
The results showed that both fathers and mothers of preemie babies had high levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva prior to being discharged from hospital. However, during the 14 days after arriving home the fathers’ cortisol levels steadily increased, while the mothers’ stress levels returned to “pretty much back to where they started,” said Garfield.
The team also found that the fathers’ stress levels based on salivary test results were higher than what they reported in the survey, suggesting that the fathers were not in touch with how stressed they really were.
“Dad goes from a situation where the baby and mom are cared for by experts in the hospital to having to simultaneously care for his baby, partner and work. He is supposed to be the ‘rock’ for his partner but the stress can really set in,” Garfield added. “While finally bringing a baby home is really wonderful, it can also be stressful because of sleep deprivation, the lack of control and having to respond constantly to the baby’s needs.”
To help reduce fathers’ stress, Garfield now recommends both parents take time to help fathers gain confidence with the baby while still in the NICU, to help ease the transition from hospital to home.
“Dads should be telling the mom to go take a walk, take a shower, see a friend,” Garfield said. “But moms can also say, ‘Why don’t you go to the gym, see your friends, meet someone after work?’ as ways to reduce some of the stress.”
“Babies thrive when parents thrive, and if parents are stressed out, that can impact their parenting of the child, the relationship between the mom and dad and can alter infant attachment,” Garfield added. “This all is just much more pronounced with medically vulnerable babies leaving the NICU and going home with mom and dad.”
Although the research didn’t look at the stress levels of parents of full-term babies, Garfield said those parents still report feeling stress when returning home, suggesting that all parents need to try to take time to relax and find ways to reduce stress.
The findings can be found published online in the Journal of Perinatal and Neonatal Nursing. JB