Academic journal article Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health

Gender Differences in Parental Reactions to the Birth of a Premature Low Birth Weight Infant

Academic journal article Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health

Gender Differences in Parental Reactions to the Birth of a Premature Low Birth Weight Infant

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: The present study assessed differences in stress responses of mothers and fathers of premature low birth weight infants. The sample consisted of 45 parents, 32 mothers and 13 fathers whose infants ranged in age from six to forty-eight months. At birth, these children's length of gestation ranged from 23-37 weeks, and they weighed between 351-2817 grams. Results indicated that mothers experience more stress symptoms six months after the birth of their premature children than do fathers. Furthermore, mothers' intrusive stress experiences outnumber fathers' when their premature infants reach six months of age. These findings highlight the differential experience of mothers and fathers when their child is born prematurely. The impact of sample size on our findings is also discussed, as are implications for future research.

KEY WORDS: Premature, low birth weight, stress, and parental reactions.


Premature infant outcomes have been studied since the early twentieth century (Brander, 1936; Brander, 1937; Rudder 1937). However, studies whose chief concern were parental reactions to such births have only appeared in the literature since the 1960's (Caplan, 1960; Kaplan & Mason, 1960; Kaplan, 1965). Although advances in neonatal technology have increased infant survival rates, the experience of having a premature birth nevertheless has a significant impact on the parents of these infants (Affleck, Tennen, & Rowe, 1990; DeMier, Hynan, Harris, & Manniello, 1996). The sources of stress accompanying the birth of a high-risk infant include the appearance of the infant, separation from infant, infant outcome uncertainty, and the sights, sounds, and rules of the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) environment (Gennaro, 1995; Hughes & McCollum, 1994; Hughes, McCollum, Sheftel, & Sanchez, 1994; Miles, 1989; Miles, Funk, & Kasper, 1992). Studies looking at the emotional responses of parents to these and other stressors often focus on the mother; however, studies including fathers' reaction have begun to appear.

Maternal Emotional Responses to a High-risk Childbirth

Kaplan and Mason (1965) were among the first researchers to acknowledge the maternal stress response to the birth of a premature infant, and who concluded that, in contrast to an emphasis on "stress-prone personalities", the stress of a premature birth may result in an acute emotional disorder resulting, in part, from the premature birth itself and one's attempt to cope with and master the situation (Kaplan, 1965; Kaplan & Mason, 1960). For example, a term mother's delivery experience is one that fosters the belief that she will deliver a normal baby. In contrast, a premature mother's labor experience can be likened to an emergency (Kaplan & Mason, 1960) where the reactions of the hospital staff confirm that this pre-term delivery is dangerous for her infant. Post delivery, the preterm mother worries about her infant's chances of survival and the possibility of abnormal developments. Where the term mother is encouraged to hold and feed her baby after birth, the preterm mother's infant is rapidly taken away and she is left with a feeling of helplessness. Feelings of guilt and disappointment are reinforced when the preterm mother leaves her infant at the NICU and goes home empty-handed. In contrast, the term mother is able to care for her infant at home and continue to develop a relationship with the baby despite the possible presence of post-labor anxiety.

Numerous studies since have documented the increased stress experienced by mothers of preterm low birth weight infants (Affleck, Tennen, & Rowe, 1991; Blumberg, 1980; Brooten, et al., 1988; Choi, 1973; Gennaro, 1988; Gennaro, Brooten, Roncoli, & Kumar, 1993; Gennaro, & Stringer, 1991; Gennaro, York, & Brooten, 1990; Kaplan & Mason, 1960; Miles, 1989; Patteson & Barnard, 1990; Pederson, Bento, Chance, Evans, & Fox, 1987; Younger, Kendall, & Pickler, 1997). …

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