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Health & Baby

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Moms of Preemies Face Health Problems, Too

Stress of Having Low-Birth-Weight Child Has Lasting Impact
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Dec. 16, 2011 -- Stephanie Breiby describes the months after the birth of her twin sons, Hawthorne and Ethan, as a roller coaster of highs and lows.

Born three months prematurely, one weighing 2 1/2 pounds and the other just 2 pounds, the boys remained in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit for 65 days.

“In the NICU they were always running tests, and I remember always being on pins and needles because we never knew if a little thing was really a big thing,” Breiby says.

She has no doubt that her own hospitalization for one of three bouts of mastitis, an infection of the breast, during this time was caused by the stress of those early days of motherhood.

Now, new research confirms that mothers of very low-birth-weight babies often have long-term medical issues themselves.

The findings suggest that the stress of caring for a very low-birth-weight child can have a lasting impact on maternal health, says researcher Whitney P. Witt, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“When a child is born very prematurely the medical focus is rightly on the child, but our findings indicate that parents are also at risk,” Witt tells WebMD. “If we can help parents deal with the stresses they face in those early months, it may have a long-term impact.”

Sick Babies, Sick Moms?

To be considered very low birth weight, a child must be born weighing less than 3.3 pounds. More than 63,000 of these children are born in the U.S. each year.

Witt’s study is among the first to explore the long-term health implications of delivering a very low-birth-weight baby.

The study included 297 mothers of babies born in Wisconsin in 2003 and 2004 weighing less than 3.3 pounds, and 290 mothers of normal-weight babies born during the same period.

Five years after giving birth, the mothers of very low-birth-weight babies tended to have more physical health problems than mothers of children whose weight was normal at birth.

Among the other major findings:

  • Mothers of babies who spent the most time in the NICU had the most health problems five years later.
  • Mothers of low-birth-weight children who had behavioral problems at age 2 had worse mental health when the children were age 5, compared to other mothers.
  • Having health problems during pregnancy and being a single parent were also associated with worse health among mothers.

Maternal mental health issues associated with delivering a very low-birth-weight baby were more likely to resolve over time than physical issues.

The study appears in the latest issue of the journal Quality of Life Research.

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