A new study has found that young parents who have less education and care for more than one child are more likely to have persistent symptoms of depression that linger six months after their newborn is discharged from a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
“Using a validated screening tool, we found that 40 percent of parents in our analyses were positive for depression at the time their newborn was discharged from the NICU,” said Karen Fratantoni, M.D., M.P.H., a pediatrician with the Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C., and the lead author.
“It’s reassuring that, for many parents, these depressive symptoms ease over time. However, for a select group of parents, depression symptoms persisted six months after discharge. Our findings help to ensure that we target mental health screening and services to these more vulnerable parents.”
The new study is an offshoot from “Giving Parents Support (GPS) after NICU discharge,” a large, randomized clinical trial exploring whether providing peer-to-peer parental support after NICU discharge improves babies’ overall health as well as their parents’ mental health.
Mothers of preterm and full-term infants who are hospitalized in NICUs are at risk for peripartum mood disorders, including postpartum depression, the researchers noted. The research team sought to determine how many parents of NICU graduates experience depression and which characteristics are shared by parents with elevated depression scores.
They included 125 parents who had enrolled in the GPS clinical trial in their exploratory analyses and assessed depressive symptoms using a 10-item, validated screening tool, the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale (CES-D).
A majority of the parents — 84 percent — were women. Nearly 61 percent of their infants were male and were born at a median gestational age of 37.7 weeks and mean birth weight of 2,565 grams.
The median length of time these newborns remained in the NICU was 18 days. When the babies were discharged, 50 parents — 40 percent — had elevated CES-D scores, according to the study’s findings. By six months after discharge, that number dropped to 17 parents (14 percent).Their mean age ranged from 26.5 to 30.6 years old.
“Parents of NICU graduates who are young, have less education and are caring for other children are at higher risk for persistent symptoms of depression,” said Fratantoni.
“We know that peripartum mood disorders can persist for one year or more after childbirth so these findings will help us to better match mental health care services to parents who are most in need.”