Mothers who do not receive psychological help after giving birth prematurely are five times more likely to suffer depression than those who do, even eight years after their children are born, a world-first study has found.
The study, conducted at Melbourne’s Royal Women’s Hospital, tracked mothers and babies who received nine-monthly visits from a psychologist and a physiotherapist in the first year of the children’s lives and compared them to a control group who did not receive that help.
It found 27 per cent of the mothers who were not given the intervention had symptoms of depression and 42 per cent had symptoms of anxiety.
“It really is surprising and way too high, the rates of depression and anxiety that we are seeing at this age, and we definitely do need to be intervening earlier,” said lead researcher, Associate Professor Alicia Spittle from the Royal Women’s Hospital and University of Melbourne.
By contrast, only 5 per cent of the mothers who were helped had depression and 22 per cent had anxiety.
“A really important part of our program was to support the parent-infant relationship, because you can imagine having a baby who is born early and has spent two, three, four months in hospital, that that relationship between the mother and baby and bond can be affected,” Dr Spittle said.
Babies were also given physiotherapy to improve their core strength and motor skills, which can be compromised by months of lying on their backs in hospital instead of in the safe foetal position in their mother’s womb.
The report did not find a significant difference in the baby’s physical wellbeing, but Dr Spittle said she believed that was because there would have to be far more support to change that than simply in the first year.
‘It was a very scary experience’
Simone Saunders, gave birth to son Noah at 28 weeks’ gestation in 2006, and said she was not surprised that rates of depression and anxiety was far higher in mothers who did not receive help as part of the study, like she did.
“If you don’t have professional support to help you understand the emotions that you are feeling and deal with those day-to-day situations, you are just not able to learn the resilience that you need to be able to continue on,” Ms Saunders said.
“I don’t think that I really felt like a normal mum until [Noah] was about four, to be honest … because there’s that point where you don’t know developmentally what you might be faced with with a prem, which is kind of the biggest scariest part.”
Noah, who is just like any other 10-year-old these days, was born weighing just a fraction over 1 kilogram and had severe breathing difficulties. He stopped breathing several times in his first year.
“It was a very scary experience. Basically, at 28 weeks, I started haemorrhaging and he was born within hours. [I was] so completely and utterly unprepared for a baby at 28 weeks,” she said.
“Noah’s lungs were particularly compromised because he was so early, so we had to be prepared for lots of ups and downs and just learning to accept that for that period of your life you have to leave your baby in hospital.
“You have to go home without him every night and leave him in the care of strangers, and hope that the doctors know what they are doing and hope for the best.”
‘Seek intervention, it actually does make a difference’
Dr Spittle said mothers of premature babies often do not attend mothers’ groups, which help with mental wellbeing, because their babies are too unwell or will be overstimulated.
“If you’ve got a baby who you are concerned might get an infection, catch a cold, these mothers were more likely to stay at home and feel a little bit more isolated,” she said.
“They don’t want people asking questions as to why is your baby on oxygen, or why is your baby smaller than other babies, and so rather always than being confronted with these questions, in some ways, it’s easier to withdraw.
“But then that can be associated with increased signs of depression and anxiety as well.”
Around Australia, 25,000 babies are born premature — that is before 37 weeks — every year and the survival rates for the really tiny babies are getting better all the time.
At the Royal Women’s Hospital a baby was born at just 23 weeks this year and he is still going strong three months later.
But that means more children who could potentially have life-long brain development issues and more parents dealing with worrying about their children.
“Our interventions were only nine sessions over the first year of life and we’re seeing long-lasting effects,” Dr Spittle said.
“I would encourage the government health professionals and parents themselves — seek intervention, it actually does make a difference long term.”
This piece was first seen on ‘ABC News’, 1 December, 2016.