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BioMed Central (BMC)

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BMC Pediatrics

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Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, parents of infants in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) frequently reported high levels of stress, uncertainty, and decreased parenting confidence. Early research has demonstrated that parents have had less access to their infants in the hospital due to restrictions on parental presence secondary to the pandemic. It is unknown how parents have perceived their experiences in the NICU since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The purpose of this study was to describe the lived experience of parents who had an infant in the NICU in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic to inform healthcare providers and policy makers for future development of policies and care planning.


The study design was a qualitative description of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on parents’ experiences of having an infant in the NICU. Free-text responses to open-ended questions were collected as part of a multi-method study of parents’ experiences of the NICU during the first six months of the pandemic. Participants from the United States were recruited using social media platforms between the months of May and July of 2020. Data were analyzed using a reflexive thematic approach.


Free-text responses came from 169 parents from 38 different states in the United States. Three broad themes emerged from the analysis: (1) parents’ NICU experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic were emotionally isolating and overwhelming, (2) policy changes restricting parental presence created disruptions to the family unit and limited family-centered care, and (3) interactions with NICU providers intensified or alleviated emotional distress felt by parents. A unifying theme of experiences of emotional distress attributed to COVID-19 circumstances ran through all three themes.


Parents of infants in the NICU during the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic experienced emotional struggles, feelings of isolation, lack of family-centered care, and deep disappointment with system-level decisions. Moving forward, parents need to be considered essential partners in the development of policies concerning care of and access to their infants.


The COVID-19 pandemic created unprecedented conditions for administrators and clinicians working in Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICU) and greatly affected parents of infants requiring hospitalization. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, parents of infants admitted to a NICU reported high levels of stress, anxiety, uncertainty, and decreased parenting confidence when compared to parents of healthy full-term infants [1,2,3,4,5,6]. Approximately 28–40% of mothers of infants admitted to a NICU were diagnosed with a new mental illness, such as depression or perinatal post-traumatic stress disorder [7]. Fathers of infants requiring NICU hospitalization also reported significant stress and need for reassurance and support [8, 9].


Published version. BMC Pediatrics, Vol. 21, No. 558 (December 09, 2021). DOI. © 2021 The Authors, published by BioMed Central (BMC). Used with permission.

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