Bliss research shows young parents face ‘double whammy’ of being underprepared and under-supported when their babies are in neonatal care

Posted on October 29, 2021

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Bliss publishes the report ‘Neonatal care through a young parent lens’, which includes results of a survey of over 200 parents aged under 25.

More than half (55%) of young parents felt they were not as involved in caregiving or decision-making as they wanted to be when their baby was born premature or sick, according to our new research.

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Despite an increased risk of prematurity and neonatal mortality for babies born to mothers aged under 20, the findings reveal that expectant young parents receive the contradictory message throughout their pregnancy that their youth will be a protective factor. This myth left many participants feeling unprepared, enhancing their feelings of shock and disbelief when their babies were born unwell.

59% of participants felt information about neonatal care during pregnancy would have helped them feel more confident once their baby was born.

One young parent, aged 20 when her babies were born, and who was interviewed as part of the project said, “You don’t ever expect you or your baby to end up in there really... You don’t know so much about neonatal units. I mean, I don’t think my partner knew what neonatal was, or [what it] did for babies, before we were in there.”

Once on the neonatal unit, many young parents did not receive the support they needed to be fully involved in caregiving. One in five respondents did not feel well supported by staff – with some experiencing age-related discrimination – and a fifth reported that communication could be unclear, significantly affecting their understanding of their baby’s needs.

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One young dad who took part in the research and who was 16 when his baby was born said, “It was causing problems with [my partner] because we were both arguing, saying, ‘Is it us? Are we doing enough? Are we not doing enough? Are we good enough as parents?’ We really doubted ourselves. I thought the NICU experience was supposed to be nice but it really, really, really wasn’t.”

It is vital that all parents can be fully involved in caregiving and decision-making for their baby during their time on a neonatal unit. This is critical for securing strong parent-infant bonds, and for ensuring that babies, and their families, have the very best long-term outcomes.

The neonatal experience had a significant impact on the mental health of many parents who took part in the study, with some participants sharing their experiences of being diagnosed with postnatal depression or post-traumatic stress disorder after their baby was discharged. Insights from participants suggest that the full trauma is often not realised until their baby has been home for some time - but when parents seek support it can be inappropriate for their needs, frequently non-existent at all.

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A young mum said ‘’During the time... in hospital, my mental health and wellbeing was being ignored and not considered at all. Due to not having support, I now suffer from postnatal depression and suspected PTSD.’’

Caroline Lee-Davey, Chief Executive at Bliss, said: “Parents – regardless of their age – are the most important people in their baby’s world. These concerning findings show that young parent families are not being adequately supported when their world is turned upside down by a neonatal admission.”

‘’While our research shows that younger parents have many of the same fears, stresses and anxieties as other parents when their baby needs hospital care after birth, these can be amplified by age-related discrimination, variation in family-centred care and reduced awareness of neonatal care.

‘’It is essential that this already vulnerable population of parents receives the information and support they need to have an equitable experience of neonatal care, where they can be partners in caring for their baby. At Bliss, we are committed to using these findings to improve our own support for parents aged under 25, and we will work with neonatal services and national decision makers to make progress towards addressing the systemic issues which prevent young parent families from being as involved in their baby’s care as they need and want to be.’’

Bliss young parents research

Read 'Neonatal care through a young parent lens'