Taking care of a premature infant adds an extra burden to already stressed parents. Previous studies have shown that parental stress occurs during the initial hospitalization. However, there is little information on parental stress over time, and the few existing results are conflicting. In addition, many studies have focused on maternal stress but there is little information about a father's long-term adaptation to stress. The purpose of this study was to examine the degree and type of parenting stress in the families of very low birth weight (VLBW) preterm infants over the first two years of life. We compared parenting stress in families with preterm infants with control families, while also comparing the stress in mothers to that in fathers. Furthermore, we explored the relationship between parenting stress in the preterm group with identified factors that included the infant's age, medical complications, and parents' perceived feeding issues after they had been discharged from the hospital. This was an exploratory study with a cross sectional design. Participants included a total of 505 mothers from Tainan, Taiwan; 297 with preterm children (239 mothers, 58 fathers) and 208 with full-term children (181 mothers, 27 fathers). Assessments including the Parenting Stress Index, Neonatal Medical Index and Behavior-based Feeding Questionnaire were used to measure parental distress, infants' medical complications and parents' perceived feeding issues, respectively. Results of the study, though not statistically significant, indicated the presence of increased parenting stress in parents of preterm infants as compared to parents of full-term infants. 13.1% of mothers with preterm infants demonstrated total stress levels that warranted clinical intervention. We also found that mothers of preterm infants presented different parenting stress patterns than fathers of preterm infants. Fathers of preterm infants tended to have overall higher stress scores than mothers. On the other hand, mothers of preterm infants tended to report more health related difficulties, more depression, higher social isolation and role restriction, and less support from their spouses, than reported by fathers. Moreover, as time went on, parents with preterm infants continued to experience greater parenting stress than those with full-term infants. Understanding the experiences of parents with preterm children is important for health care providers while interviewing parents for information regarding their children and designing intervention programs to improve children's outcomes.
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