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Adv Neonatal Care. 2019 Aug;19(4):E12-E21. doi: 10.1097/ANC.0000000000000601.

A Pilot Study of Oxytocin in Low-Income Women With a Low Birth-Weight Infant: Is Oxytocin Related to Posttraumatic Stress?

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Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing, Loyola University Chicago, Illinois (Dr Garfield); Duke School of Nursing, Durham, North Carolina (Dr Holditch-Davis); Indiana University, Bloomington (Dr Carter); University of Illinois, Chicago (Dr McFarlin); Department of Systems, Populations, and Leadership, University of Michigan School of Nursing, Ann Arbor (Dr Seng); The Ohio State University, Columbus (Dr Giurgescu); University of Illinois at Chicago, and Children's Hospital of Wisconsin and Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee (Dr White-Traut).



Negative outcomes related to prematurity may lead to maternal distress. Mothers of premature/low birth-weight infants report increased posttraumatic stress (50%) and depressive symptoms (63%) compared with mothers of full-term infants. Low-income, minority mothers with greater posttraumatic stress and depression have an increased risk for premature/low birth-weight delivery compared with their white counterparts. Variations in the neuropeptide oxytocin are implicated in lactation, perinatal depression, and maternal behavior.


To examine the associations among posttraumatic stress, depressive symptoms, and oxytocin in a pilot sample of minority mothers with premature/low birth-weight infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).


This study employed a descriptive, correlational pilot design of 8 minority, low-income mothers with premature/low birth-weight infants. Participants answered questionnaires pertaining to posttraumatic stress, depression, lactation, and demographics and oxytocin was measured. This is a substudy that added oxytocin values.


Four participants had elevated depressive symptoms and 5 supplied their own milk. Women who provided their own milk had lower depressive (t = 3.03, P = .023) and posttraumatic stress (t = 3.39, P = .015) symptoms compared with women not supplying their own milk. Women with elevated posttraumatic stress had higher levels of depressive symptoms (r(8) = 0.8, P = .006) and lower levels of oxytocin (r(8) = 0.77, P = .026).


These results are congruent with previous literature on providing human milk and maternal mental health. In addition, we found a possible relationship between postpartum posttraumatic stress and oxytocin in minority women with premature/low birth-weight infants. NICU nurses should encourage lactation and assess mothers for posttraumatic stress and depressive symptoms.


Research is needed to identify the biologic milieu associated with posttraumatic stress and depression in at-risk mothers.

[Available on 2020-08-01]

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