Is it common for parents to struggle with their mental health?

Mum standing looking into incubator at her baby who is wearing an eye mask. She is reaching through the incubator to comfort her baby.

We often hear that parents can struggle with their mental health when they have had a baby in neonatal care. But how common is this? And what does research tell us?

The impact on parents' mental health

We surveyed almost 600 parents to find out more about the mental health challenges they face. Take a look at the key findings below.


of parents' mental health got worse after their time on the neonatal unit


said their mental health became significantly worse after their experience on a neonatal unit


said their mental health was “somewhat worse” after their experience

Only 18% of those surveyed saw no change in their mental health and only 2% said their mental health improved.

Of the parents we surveyed, 39% said that although they weren’t officially diagnosed with a mental health condition in connection to their experience on the neonatal unit, they think they do or did have one.

Mental health conditions

For those who were diagnosed with a mental health condition, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and postnatal depression were the most common.

  • 23% of parents had anxiety after their time on the neonatal unit.
  • 16% said they suffered with post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • 14% said they had postnatal depression.
  • 1% said they had postpartum psychosis.
  • 6% reported “other” diagnoses including:
    • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), separation anxiety, suicidal thoughts, worsening of pre-existing conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder or anxiety.

30% of parents surveyed said that they were not diagnosed with a mental health condition after their time on the neonatal unit and do not think they had one.

Access to support on the unit

  • 62% of parents didn’t have access to psychological support when they needed it while on the neonatal unit.
  • 6% had some access to formal psychological support but not enough.
  • 8% felt they had the right amount of psychological support.
  • 24% said they had no psychological support but did not want it.

Access to support after leaving the unit

  • 45% of parents didn’t have access to psychological support when they needed it after leaving the neonatal unit.
  • 15% had formal psychological support but no longer use it.
  • 10% still use formal psychological support.
  • 28% did not have any psychological support but did not want it.
  • 2% of those surveyed were still on the neonatal unit so the question didn’t apply to them.

What does other research show?

Scientific research shows that there can be a link between having a baby in neonatal care and how that affects your mental health as a parent.

Parents with a premature baby are 50% more likely to experience psychological distress compared with parents who do not spend time on the unit

Research also shows that parents who have had a premature baby can find there is more of a stress on their family life compared with families whose baby did not spend time on the unit.

Post traumatic stress disorder and childbirth

PTSD can begin after childbirth, with extreme distress during traumatising events linked to how symptoms appear.

Parents whose baby is born premature or sick often experience trauma during birth. This can be for lots of different reasons. Some of the most common experiences are:

  • Suffering anxiety after giving birth before parents were expecting to
  • Going into labour suddenly, and outside of a hospital
  • Having emergency surgery, such as a cesarean section
  • Specific parts of the birth, for example lots of blood loss or being alone
  • Being separated from their baby as soon as they’re born

Research also shows that parents who don’t feel they know enough about their situation or what is happening to their baby, or who don’t feel sure of what will happen next, can struggle more with their mental health.

Can babies pick up on depression?

Premature babies can sometimes pick up when their mum is struggling with depression.

One study showed that a premature baby’s stress levels can increase if their mum is suffering with depression.

But this does not mean that parents who are needing support with their mental health or who are finding things challenging should not care for their baby – in fact the opposite is true.

Many studies show that being involved in your baby’s care has positive effects for you, your family and your baby. This is why it’s really important to look after your own needs too, and to get support if you feel as though you are struggling.

It wasn’t until we got home that the reality of what happened began to sink in. I suddenly had no support. No one to check things with. No one to talk to who knew what we had been through.

Hannah, mum

What does this mean for you?

Every parent will have a very different experience in neonatal care. This can be based on what you experience during your time there, what support you have, and how you generally face challenges. You might find that your mental health doesn’t change during your time in the unit.

However, if you do feel like you need more support, you are not alone. Our survey showed that most parents felt their mental health got worse after being on the neonatal unit.

That means there are others feeling what you are feeling now. Often just knowing this can be the first step towards getting more support.

The information in this section is due for review in September 2022.