Admission of a preterm or sick full-term infant to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is a stressful experience for parents. Indeed, the ‘NICU experience’ may constitute a traumatic event for parents, distinct from other birth-related trauma, leading to significant and ongoing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. However, the rates at which this outcome occurs are not well understood. This review aimed to identify the prevalence of PTSD in mothers and fathers of high-risk infants admitted to the NICU, specifically focusing on the NICU experience as the index trauma. The PRISMA-P: Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis Protocols were used to conduct this review. We searched PsycINFO, PubMed, Scopus, EMBASE, Web of Science, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses databases, and reference lists of included articles (1980–2021). Two independent reviewers screened titles and abstracts and conducted the full-text screening assessment. Of the 707 records identified, seven studies met the inclusion criteria. In this systematic review, PTSD symptomatology was assessed by self-report measures rather than a clinical interview. We identified significant variations in the methodologies and quality between studies, with a wide variation of reported prevalence rates of PTSD of 4.5–30% in mothers and 0–33% in fathers. Overall, the findings indicate that up to one-third of parents experience PTSD symptomatology related to the NICU experience. These results emphasize the importance of universal routine antenatal and postnatal screening for symptoms of PTSD to identify parents at risk of distress during the NICU experience and after discharge.
Trial registration: The study protocol was registered with Prospero registration number CRD42020154548 on 28 April 2020.