Reflections on NICU Trauma

My birthday is coming up on Friday. It was another Friday 28 years ago that I was born at somewhere around 26 weeks gestation. The doctors determined my gestational age to be 26 weeks four days based on what my mother told them and whatever measurements they took. Based on my date of conception, my gestational age may’ve been as young as 25 weeks two days. When I was a teen, this “mistake” led to extreme turmoil, for I thought babies before 26 weeks gestation were at the time not treated. The reality of my birth story is that the neonatologist, now a proponent of leaving micropreemies to die, informed my parents that they were simply keeping me alive and not to interfere.

Times have changed since 1986. For one thing, more is known about the effects of premature birth on health and development. For another, more attention is paid to parents’ and babies’ mental health. This doesn’t mean that PTSD doesn’t rear its ugly head at times. Today, I read a story by a mother of a 23-weeker, who clearly says it does. Then again, 28 years ago PTSD was unheard of in NICU parents. Attachment issues were unheard of in preemies. Today, we know better.

I know better. It isn’t my job to diagnose my parents, but they certainly experienced the effects the Mom in the above story describes. Time and time again, they’d re-experience the memories surrounding my birth. They shared with me, and that was mostly good. Some of it was not so good. Knowing my parents had questioned my quality of life and whether I should be kept alive at all, well, that certainly left some scars on my soul.

I learned about the possibility of the NICU experience being traumatic to the baby from another former preemie in like 2006. She was born in the 1970s, and much had changed between than and the mid-80s. Still, when I checked out the “About” page for the above blog, I was astonished to read that Jax, born in 2012, wasn’t first held till he was nearly two weeks old. I probably didn’t have it any better. I don’t mean this to whine, but it is a possible explanation, along with others, for my severe attachment issues. I know that attachment disorders can’t be diagnosed unless there is evidence of pathological care, such as abuse or neglect. The NICU isn’t pathological, but it most certainly is not a normal environment to spend the last three months of your would-have-been-preborn life or the first three months of your life out in the world in.

8 thoughts on “Reflections on NICU Trauma

  1. Me neither but I do know that attachment is very very important! I didn’t know this before becoming a mum myself and BF my son, I thought all talks about babies stress were total BS! Now I know better, I truly believe that the first days, weeks, months of baby’s life determine how he’s going to behave and feel for the rest of his life!

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  2. Before I say anything else, Happy early birthday Astrid!

    I think that PTSD in mothers who have had a traumatic birth experience should be researched more to find better ways to prevent or treat it. There were some complicated things happening when I was born that weren’t nearly as intense as the stories you shared, but I know they continued to affect my mother afterward.

    I do hope that hospitals continue to improve attachment practices for newborns because it is an important thing, regardless of the other health issues that they are treating.

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    1. Rachel, thanks for sharing your perspective. I’m sorry for what your mother had to endure. I did read some research on PTSD following childbirth. It didn’t address prematurity but was on trauma endured at an “ordinary” delivery (including C-sections). I’ll have to dig it up and put my writing on it on the blog as I had it on a now-defunct website.

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  3. This is so fascinating to me- I definitely think that there’s a link between not being held for two weeks and having attachment issues. That bonding between parents and newborn infants is so strong and so important in the first few hours/days of life- of course it’s more difficult with a premature baby, and I can’t begin to imagine how it must have been for your parents to go through that.
    Thanks for sharing this, Astrid!

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  4. Thank you for sharing your story. This is such an interesting topic to think about! I think it’s sad that things like this happen, and I feel bad for the mothers and babies that aren’t allowed any sort of physical contact.

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