Objectives: Traumatic stress symptoms from multiple causes are endemic among impoverished women who are also at high risk for delivering infants requiring neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) care, but whether this event itself constitutes a distinct traumatic stress trigger is unknown. Previous research does suggest having an infant in the NICU generates traumatic stress among white middle-class mothers, stress that can impact their infant’s behavior and development. This study evaluated the prevalence of acute posttraumatic stress symptoms among low-income mothers of infants admitted to the NICU compared with similar mothers with infants in the well baby nursery (WBN).
Methods: A total of 59 NICU and 60 WBN mothers were recruited from the Boston Medical Center. Within the first week after birth, all participants were assessed for postpartum acute posttraumatic stress and depression symptoms and asked about lifetime traumatic events before the birth of their baby. The acute posttraumatic stress symptoms were analyzed as a continuous variable and whether they reached the categorical severity criteria for acute stress disorder.
Results: NICU mothers show increased symptoms of acute posttraumatic stress and depression. Twenty-three percent of NICU and 3% of WBN reached severity criteria for acute stress disorder. When controlling for relevant covariates, having a newborn in the NICU had a significant association with the number of mothers’ acute posttraumatic stress symptoms not fully explained by their symptoms of depression or prior lifetime history of traumatic events.
Conclusions: Addressing acute posttraumatic stress symptoms may enhance interventions to help urban families of NICU infants.