Vulnerable Child Syndrome and Preemies

Lonely young girl

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Vulnerable child syndrome is a medical condition that affects children and their parents. It develops when a child has a potentially life-threatening issue during infancy such as prematurity, a birth problem, or an illness that causes parents to have overwhelming feelings of anxiety and fear about their child's health even if the child is doing well and growing in a normal, healthy way.

Vulnerable child syndrome is an extreme response where parents feel they must watch over and protect their child more carefully than other "healthy" children. This type of reaction to the very stressful events leading up to the birth or hospital discharge of their child can have serious long-term emotional and psychological effects on the family.

Parenting Behaviors That Can Lead to Vulnerable Child Syndrome

Some of the behaviors that can put a child at risk for developing vulnerable child syndrome include when parents:

  • They are always worried about the child's health and believe something bad is going to happen to him
  • Take the baby to the doctor all the time because they think something is wrong
  • Avoid allowing the child to be around others because they don't want her to pick up any germs or illnesses
  • Don't let their child participate in activities with other kids because they fear the child will be injured
  • Don't want to leave the baby with any other caregiver because they don't believe anyone else can protect the child the same way they do
  • Are afraid to discipline the child because they don't want to upset the child and make her ill

Premature Babies and Vulnerable Child Syndrome

When a baby is born too early and needs special care in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) or intermediate level nursery, it's scary for parents. The baby is smaller and more fragile than a baby born closer to his due date. So, it's not surprising that parents are worried.

Worrying is normal, especially after the baby leaves the hospital during the first few weeks and months at home. And, yes, a preemie does need to be monitored more closely during those first few months. But, most preemies do very well as they grow and can soon be treated as normal, healthy infants.

If a baby is doing well after a few months of being home, parents should gradually begin to feel better and less worried. If instead, as time goes on the worrying becomes excessive, and mothers and fathers become too overprotective, it can have a negative effect on the way a child grows and develops.

There's a point when trying to protect a child and shield them from danger or illness can become harmful and unhealthy for the child and the parents.

Who Else Is at Risk?

Prematurity is not the only condition that can instill an overwhelming sense of fear in parents. Others situations that can lead to overprotection and excessive worry include:

  • Children of parents who have suffered miscarriages
  • Children of parents who have had fertility problems and a difficult time building their family
  • Children of parents who have lost a child
  • Children of parents who suffer from anxiety or depression
  • Children who have been through a traumatic birth
  • Children who had a childhood illness

How Vulnerable Child Syndrome Affects Children

Children who grow up in a home and environment that is too overprotected can become scared of the world. They may not be able to find their confidence, and they can have low self-esteem from never accomplishing anything on their own. These children may become very dependent on their parents.

As they grow, they may be developing physically on target, but they don't get the opportunity to grow normally in a personal and psychological way. Therefore, these children may have more difficulty in social situations.

Vulnerable children have more trouble in school and can develop learning disabilities. They may not sleep well, and they may seem to always suffer from some type of illness. Parents may feel guilty about setting limits or punishing their child because they believe their child is sick.

The lack of appropriate limits for children can lead to behavior issues as the child grows.

How Vulnerable Child Syndrome Affects Parents

Vulnerable child syndrome doesn't only have a detrimental effect on children. It can also affect the lives and health of moms and dads:

  • It can be hard for parents to realize that their child who was vulnerable at the beginning of her life is now healthier and able to grow up in a normal way. They still see their baby as fragile and prone to illness.
  • Parents' lives can become all about protecting their child. They may not feel safe leaving the baby with a babysitter or grandparent, so they may never go out. The thought of being away from their baby can cause severe separation anxiety. It's easy for parents to lose themselves and begin living only for their child.
  • Parents worry about every little thing. They often bring the baby to the doctor's office or the emergency room for minor issues.
  • Parents do not sleep very well. They may wake up multiple times during the night to check on the child.
  • Parents who see their child as vulnerable can be under a tremendous amount of constant stress.

How to Prevent Vulnerable Child Syndrome

As a parent, preventing vulnerable child syndrome begins by understanding it. The more you know, the more you'll be able to pay attention to your thoughts and behaviors about your child. It doesn't mean you won't still worry, but you'll be able to pause and think about whether or not you're holding your child back because of actual danger or just your own fears.

Here are some ways to prevent your fears from getting in the way of your baby's growth:

  • Have a discussion with your child's doctor about your concerns. Your baby's healthcare team can give you the most current health information on your child. They can advise you on what your child can and cannot tolerate based on his individual situation.
  • Talk to a counselor about your anxiety, your history, and your baby's history. Trying to find out the reason behind your anxiety and working it out can help you deal with it going forward.
  • Try to keep your fear from getting in the way of letting your child spend time around others.
  • Treat your baby like a typical child. Even though she was born early, as she grows, she'll catch up. Even if she needs to take medication, she's still a normal child.
  • Let your child participate in activities with other kids.

Parenting Your Preemie

Parents worry. It's a normal part of parenting. You love your child, and you don't want anything to happen to him. It's tough, especially when you have a preemie who is truly vulnerable in the beginning. But, as your child grows, it's important to help him experience the world and allow him to begin to do things on his own, even if he has continuing medical needs. You'll still be there if your child needs you, just not stopping him from learning and exploring, and not jumping in to do everything for him.

Yes, he may get a bump and bruise from time to time, but he'll also get to have fun, enjoy different experiences, and make memories. He'll develop social skills and self-confidence. While it may be difficult at first, as you watch your child learn to handle the good along with the bad, it will get easier. And, you'll feel better knowing that you're helping your child to grow and develop to his full potential in the healthiest way possible.

1 Source
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  1. Chambers PL, Mahabee-Gittens EM, Leonard AC. Vulnerable child syndrome, parental perception of child vulnerability, and emergency department usagePediatr Emerg Care. 2011;27(11):1009–1013. doi:10.1097/PEC.0b013e318235bb4f

By Donna Murray, RN, BSN
Donna Murray, RN, BSN has a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Rutgers University and is a current member of Sigma Theta Tau, the Honor Society of Nursing.