Academic journal article Pre- and Peri-natal Psychology Journal

The Emotional Reactions of Parents to Their Premature Baby

Academic journal article Pre- and Peri-natal Psychology Journal

The Emotional Reactions of Parents to Their Premature Baby

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: Parents have a confusing variety of emotional reactions to the stress of a high-risk birth. Terror, grief, impotence, and anger are common feelings for these parents. Some of these reactions bring families closer together; at other times these emotions pull spouses apart. It is essential to recognize that even though these emotions are very troubling, they are normal experiences during a life-and-death crisis. Instead of attempting to escape these feelings, the parents' recovery from the stress of a high-risk birth is dependent upon how well they accept their feelings and the changes in their lives.

When my son was born 10 weeks prematurely in 1980 and was hospitalized for 7 weeks, I found no books or journal articles that would help parents struggle with this emotional crisis. Being a clinical psychologist, it was very important to me to understand the emotional hurricane I was experiencing. How could I help myself, my family? I didn't do very well at understanding then. If what you are feeling is a confusing mixture of terror, grief, impotence, anger, and whatever else; you are fortunate if you can understand tap water.

Being a psychologist did not make high-risk parenting easy for me, although I think it did help me in some small ways. It was not until most of the crises were over that my understanding of my emotional reactions began to fall into place. Hindsight, obsessive thought, compulsive reading, and talking with many high-risk parents have clarified a few things for me. The experience redirected much of my academic work into writing (Hynan, 1987, 1988, 1991) and giving talks about the emotional reactions of high-risk parents. This article contains some of my recent formulations. I hope that when veteran parents and peri-natal professionals better understand the emotional upheaval of a high-risk birth, then future parents can receive meaningful support during their ordeal.

The emotions of terror, grief, impotence, and anger are common in high-risk parents. I will describe examples of their occurrence. I will also make one point repeatedly in this article. During a high-risk birth the crazy, mixed-up feelings of parents are a natural and normal reaction to incredible stress. When I talk to groups of high-risk parents, I feel like I am addressing a meeting of the veterans of the baby wars. If you have been in the life and death battlefield of a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), you are going to be disorganized and upset for months-some of us for years. We feel crazy, and we want to return to normal quickly. But that is the worst thing we can try to do, because we can't stop or reverse the natural healing process of our emotional reactions without doing damage to ourselves. The only things that are normal for high-risk parents are terror, grief, impotence, and anger (plus assorted other feelings like guilt, frustration, jealousy, and intense fatigue).

The birth of a high-risk baby changes family members forever (Featherstone, 1980; Harrison & Kositski, 1990; Nance, 1982). I believe that the best a high-risk family can do is to struggle to change and adapt together. Unfortunately, the stronger temptation is to grow weary of the long hardships, such as no sleep and extended hospitalizations, and wish that we could return to the way we were. But the process of emotional recovery from a high-risk birth is long and hard. A family is more likely to change in harmony and come through the crisis together if they let themselves be changed, rather than try to deny what is happening.


On July 18, 1980 my wife Lauren and I were finishing our first European vacation in a rural town in the northern Netherlands. Her pregnancy was going beautifully, and we were having a wonderful time. Ten days later we were the terrified parents of 2 lb., 10 oz., 30 week gestational age, Baby Boy Hynan (his official name for the first three days of his life). Thank God we were back in Milwaukee. …

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