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Member Research and Reports

UNC: Distress, Trauma Are Common Themes Among Mothers of Very Preterm and Low Birthweight Babies

As the incidence of preterm births rises, advances in medical care have allowed neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) to improve infant survival rates. However, this clinical setting creates significant challenges in mother-infant bonding and feeding. A new study finds that having a baby in the NICU can disrupt lactation and exacerbate postpartum distress.

Dr. Aunchalee Palmquist, assistant professor of maternal and child health at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health, is lead author on the study, which was published in Social Science & Medicine.

While most premature infants have a higher risk of medical complications, those born with very low birth weight – usually under 1,500 grams – are susceptible to serious complications, especially if they are formula-fed. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive human feeding for these infants, but numerous factors in the NICU can make this difficult.

To learn more, Dr. Palmquist’s team interviewed mothers who had given birth to very low birth weight infants. They found common themes among participants, including emotional suffering in response to medicalized infant feeding and their systemic marginalization in the NICU.

The physical and emotional trauma of preterm birth impacted women’s lactation experience. Most mothers in the study expressed a desire to breastfeed their babies, but few of them were able to successfully do so. Mothers also described feeling marginalized and dehumanized by the clinical attitudes of NICU staff.

The study’s results emphasized that when seeking to improve NICU care, it is necessary to understand the lived experiences that surround preterm birth. The findings also speak to a need for radical change in the structure of NICU care.

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