Background: Parental distress following the birth of a premature infant diminishes the parent's ability to be sensitive to the infant's cues, and this may affect infant developmental outcomes.
Aims: The present study examined the effects of maternal anxiety during infant hospitalization in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) on the interactive behavior of mothers with their very low birthweight (VLBW) children in toddlerhood.
Subjects: A sample of 56 mothers and their VLBW infants were recruited in the NICU.
Study design: During the infant's NICU stay, mothers completed a self-report measure of trait anxiety. These mothers and their infants were followed when the infants were 24 months corrected age, when mothers and their children were videotaped during free play at home. These videotapes were then coded using the Emotional Availability Scales.
Results: Maternal anxiety was not found to be related to severity of neonatal illness. Maternal anxiety in the NICU was associated with less sensitivity and less structure in interaction with their toddlers at 24 months corrected age, even controlling for maternal education and child birthweight. Children of mothers with higher anxiety scores in the NICU were less likely to involve their mothers in their play at 24 months corrected age.
Conclusions: Maternal anxiety in the NICU predicted adverse interactive behaviors when the children were 24 months corrected age. Early identification of anxious mothers in the NICU is needed in order to initiate preventive intervention to support the mother-infant relationship.