Mothers and Fathers Experience Stress of Congenital Heart Disease Differently: Recommendations for Pediatric Critical Care*

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Abstract

Objective:

To inform pediatric critical care practice by examining how mothers and fathers experience the stress of caring for a young child with congenital heart disease and use hospital and community supports.

Design:

Qualitative study of mothers and fathers of young children with congenital heart disease.

Setting:

Tertiary care pediatric hospital in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States.

Subjects:

Thirty-four parents (20 mothers, 14 fathers) from diverse backgrounds whose child previously underwent cardiac surgery during infancy.

Interventions:

Subjects participated in semi-structured, individual interviews about their experiences and psychosocial needs at the time of congenital heart disease diagnosis, surgical admission, and discharge to home after surgery. Qualitative interview data were coded, and consistent themes related to emotional states, stressors, and supports were identified.

Measurements and Main Results:

Fathers experience and respond to the stressors and demands of congenital heart disease in unique ways. Fathers often described stress from not being able to protect their child from congenital heart disease and the associated surgeries/pain and from difficulties balancing employment with support for their partner and care of their congenital heart disease child in the hospital. Fathers were more likely than mothers to discuss support from the work environment (coworkers/managers, flexible scheduling, helpful distraction) and were less likely to describe the use of hospital-based resources or congenital heart disease peer-to-peer supports.

Conclusions:

This study highlights the importance of understanding the paternal experience and tailoring interventions to the unique needs of both mothers and fathers. Opportunities for critical care practice change to promote the mental health of mothers and fathers following a diagnosis of congenital heart disease are discussed.

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