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Ashley Edwards Walker
Contributing Writer

Dads of Preemie Are More Stressed Than Moms, Study Says

Bringing baby home from the NICU triggers higher stress levels for dads.
PUBLISHED ON 12/05/2017

For any parent who’s had a premature baby, it can be a scary and difficult few weeks or even months of monitoring baby in the neonatal intensive care unit. Surprisingly, it turns out that bringing baby home from the hospital can also a trigger for stress—especially for dads, according to new research.

A new study from Northwestern Medicine found that it’s actually the dads of preemies (defined as being born before 37 weeks)—not the moms—who are most stressed during that crucial two-week period when families first bring their baby home from the NICU.

When researchers studied the cortisol levels of participating couples the day before they were discharged from the hospital, then one day, five days and 14 days after coming home, they discovered that while the mothers’ stress levels remained constant during those first 14 days at home with their preemie, fathers experienced an increase in their stress levels. And the reason why is actually very understandable.

"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,” Craig Garfield, MD, associate professor of pediatrics and of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and lead author of the study, said. “He is supposed to be the 'rock' for his partner but the stress can really set in."

“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,” Garfield said.

Another possible theory is the lack of universal paid paternity leave. One study found that a whopping 89 percent of dads would like to take paid time off after their baby is born. But only a handful of states—California, New Jersey and Rhode Island, for example—actually have paid paternity leave policies. And for fathers who do take time off after the birth of a child, the average length of time is 10 days. (For the record, we acknowledge that the maternity leave in the US is also severely lacking.)

For now, Garfield recommends that both parents make it a priority to get dads feeling comfortable and confident with the baby while he or she is still in the NICU to ease their stress and make the eventual transition home easier.

"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."

Published December 2017

PHOTO: iStock