More than two-thirds of preterm babies are born “late preterm,” between 34-37 weeks gestation. For many years, the epidemic of late preterm birth was largely ignored, as the typical health problems of these infants were not as severe as the challenges faced by babies born many weeks before term.
Thanks to emerging evidence and advocacy, late preterm birth is now getting recognition as the major public health problem that it is – late preterm babies do in fact face many health risks, including respiratory and feeding problems, longer and more frequent hospitalizations during infancy, and behavioral and learning problems in early childhood.
Late preterm birth is out of the shadows, but part of this public health problem is still hidden.
A new study published in JOGNN looks at the emotional health outcomes of mothers of late preterm babies. Compared with mothers of full-term babies, mothers of late preterm babies had significantly more situational anxiety, depressive symptoms, post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, and worry about their infant’s wellbeing after delivery, differences that persisted when researchers followed up with the mothers one month after giving birth. In interviews, mothers of late preterm infants described many distressing experiences, expressed concern for their own health and their infants’ health, faced many difficulties related to infant feeding and weight gain, and reported lack of timely information from care providers. They also described disruptions in their confidence in their role as mother, an experience exacerbated in women whose babies remained in the hospital after their discharge.
Depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder are debilitating and sometimes deadly conditions for women, and the children of mothers with these conditions are at risk for poor health and social outcomes. In other words, when a baby is born a few weeks early – even when the infant health outcome is favorable – this event can still have a detrimental and persistent impact on the health and wellbeing of the family.
Today is World Prematurity Day – a time to reflect on the many lives lost and families touched by prematurity, and to refocus our attention on efforts to improve perinatal health outcomes. We need to continue to strengthen efforts to prevent prematurity. When despite these efforts babies are born preterm – even just a little preterm – this study suggests that we must work to protect the health and wellbeing not just of babies, but their mothers, too.