By Salynn Boyles
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.
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.
Parents of Preemies Need Support
For more than a decade, Lynn T. Singer, PhD, a professor of environmental health sciences and pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University, has been studying the impact of stress on mothers who give birth to very low-birth-weight babies.
In a 2010 study that included close to 300 mothers followed for 14 years after the birth of a very low-birth-weight child, mothers of children with ongoing medical issues also had ongoing stress-related health issues, while mothers of healthier preemies had no more health problems than mothers of children who were not born prematurely.
Singer tells WebMD that having a good social support network appears to have a major impact on maternal satisfaction and mental and physical health.
"We have just begun to understand the importance of offering support services that help [lessen] parental stress during this time," she says.
Jasmine Zapata, whose daughter Aameira was born weighing just 1 1/2 pounds in September 2010, would welcome such services.
As a medical student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Zapata is well aware that the stress she and her husband faced over the last year could eventually take a toll on their health.
Even so, Zapata says she has missed follow-up medical exams and is not taking care of herself the way she knows she should.
"Of course I know better, but I've been so focused on her that I haven't had the time," she tells WebMD.
Breiby, who lives in Spring Green, Wis., with her husband, Todd, and her now 4 1/2-year-old twins, understands.
She says one of the most important things parents of very low-birth-weight babies can do is seek support and recognize that they can't do it alone.
Her husband ended up staying home with the babies during their twins' first year while Breiby worked full time.
"For us the first few years were a whirlwind of juggling appointments," she says. "It was all very 'head down, plow forward, and get to the next thing.'"
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