Exploring the difference in life satisfaction of parents with term born and preterm infants

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Preterm birth is associated with higher morbidity and mortality of the newborn and possible developmental delay. Parents of preterm children experience increased levels of stress, not only in the period after birth but also years later. To gain a better understanding of the particular situation of families with preterm children, parents in the German Socio-Economic Panel and the British Understanding Society Study were asked to assess their life satisfaction before, during, and after pregnancy. The results show how rewarding childbirth can be for some parents and how demanding it is for others. While most parents experience an increase in life satisfaction during pregnancy and a peak of wellbeing after birth, the opposite is the case for parents of very preterm infants. Their life satisfaction does not increase and even tends to decrease in the long term. This indicates the need for more support for parents of very preterm children.

The birth of a child is usually perceived as a life-changing experience for parents. While most parents report an increase in happiness, overall wellbeing, and health, parents with a baby born preterm often experience the beginnings of parenthood entirely differently. Especially parents of preterm-born infants note reduced wellbeing while their child must stay in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). The average stay for very preterm infants is two months, which can be very stressful for the parents. Preterm infants generally have a higher risk of morbidity and mortality, another element contributing to parental stress and exhaustion. Even 13 years after birth, parents of preterm children show a reduced level of life satisfaction and higher stress levels, indicating that raising a preterm-born child can pose a long-term challenge for many families.

For parents, this decreased feeling of wellbeing might have drastic consequences since a lower general life satisfaction is associated with mental health problems and lower physical health. That is why parents in the German Socio-Economic Panel and the British Understanding Society Study were examined to compare the life satisfaction of parents of term newborns with that of parents of preterm infants. The particularity of this study is that parents were asked to report their life satisfaction annually as part of the larger cohort studies. While conventional studies on preterm birth recruit their participants during pregnancy, this cohort study has access to data on parents’ life satisfaction already two years as well as six months before the birth and follows up six months and two years after birth.

Life satisfaction for parents of term and preterm infants differs significantly

The study reveals how rewarding childbirth can be for some and how demanding it is for others. Parents of term-born infants experience an increase in life satisfaction during pregnancy, and their wellbeing then peaks shortly after birth. The follow-up after two years shows that their life satisfaction will eventually return to the level it was before pregnancy. The same pattern applied to parents of newborns that were classified as moderate or late preterm or low birth-weight. Their life satisfaction also increased during pregnancy and returned to pre-pregnancy levels when the child was growing up, although their peak in wellbeing was not quite as pronounced. Relative to parents of term-born children, parents of preterm infants experience a significantly lower life satisfaction, lasting for years. In some cases, parents’ wellbeing at the follow-up two years after birth was even lower than before pregnancy, which was not reported for parents of term-born children.

While the increase and decrease in life satisfaction was mostly the same for fathers and mothers, gender still played an important role in the perception of life satisfaction after birth. Overall, mothers were more affected by their child’s birth than fathers, showing a higher increase in wellbeing shortly before and after birth. However, both parents’ wellbeing went back to previous levels two years after birth.

Lower life satisfaction before birth is no precursor for preterm birth

The specialty of the study was the baseline assessment two years before birth. Usually, study participants are recruited during pregnancy, but this study is based on long-standing and well-established population cohorts, which allows to also compare the pre-pregnancy life satisfaction. Therefore, the study also cleared the myth that lower life satisfaction before birth might cause preterm birth. Prenatal stress did not affect the likelihood of having a preterm child. In fact, the baseline of life satisfaction was the same for all parents and could not predict a later term or preterm birth.

However, the findings suggest that parents of very preterm or very low birth-weight infants and parents of newborns with severe illness are in need of better support to avoid jeopardizing their own wellbeing out of concern for their child.


Paper available at: Scientific Reports

Full list of authors: Robert Eves, Nicole Baumann, Ayten Bilgin, Daniel Schnitzlein, David Richter, Dieter Wolke, Sakari Lemola