Babies and Babble : parents’ experiences of the neonatal unit and the role of the Babble app : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree Doctor of Clinical Psychology at Massey University, Auckland, New Zealand
Neonatal unit admission is commonly a highly distressing and difficult time for new parents, impacting their confidence in their parenting abilities and predisposing them to significant mental health difficulties (Ballantyne et al., 2017; Holditch-Davis & Miles, 2000). In response to admission, parents commonly report a need for clear, concise information and inclusion in neonatal care (Cleveland, 2008). Alongside the rise of technology and the prevalence of smartphones across the world, mobile health applications have been theorised as an effective method of delivering rapid, consistent and accessible information to health consumer populations. Within the neonatal sphere, such approaches have been growing in popularity, however, little research has focused on the development and efficacy of mobile health applications dedicated to needs of parents with an infant admitted to a neonatal unit. In response, MidCentral District Health Board has developed an informational mobile health application, Babble, for use in conjunction with traditional care formats and with the hopes of providing greater support to parents in neonatal units (Spargo & de Vries, 2018). Although utilised by parents, the Babble app is yet to be empirically evaluated and the impacts of its use are not well understood.
In this thesis, an exploration as to parents’ experiences of the neonatal unit and the role of the Babble app is conducted in two parts. Study One explores the experiences of 449 parents with an infant admitted to a neonatal unit in New Zealand, across measures of distress, self-efficacy, how informed they felt during their infant’s admission, and their Babble app use. Study Two involved in-depth qualitative interviews with eight mothers from the Palmerston North neonatal unit, (where the Babble app originated), exploring their perspectives of their infant’s hospitalisation, and the Babble app itself.
Study One showed that parents experienced moderate distress, felt reasonably informed and considered themselves to be somewhat confident in their parental role during their infant’s neonatal admission. The Babble app did not demonstrate any significant effect on any of the variables of interest. However, results indicated that the more informed parents felt, the less distress they experienced. This relationship was partially mediated by enhanced self-efficacy, suggesting the importance of information in supporting parental self-efficacy and reducing distress.
Study Two expanded on these findings, identifying several key themes present in the experiences of mothers with infants admitted to a Level II+ neonatal unit. Firstly, findings indicated there were various ways in which mothers struggled with their parental role within a neonatal context, experiencing challenges related to managing their own expectations of the experience and asserting their role within the unit. Consistent and supportive relationships with staff, family, friends, and their partners, were seen as influential in the maternal experience. Most significantly, good communication and strong relationships with staff were seen to improve maternal confidence. Information was highly valued by mothers, with some variation in their interactions with information, depending on individual needs and styles. The Babble app was considered a useful adjunct to traditional care formats by mothers who identified that they were able to adapt and integrate its use in alignment with their individual preferences and needs.
Taken together, these findings suggest that for families, neonatal admission is a challenging and diverse experience. Staff are essential, not only as sources of information, but as part of a supportive relationship with families. The importance of informational support cannot be understated and its value in building parental self-efficacy and reducing parental distress was evidenced across both studies. Ultimately, the findings presented here suggest that informational resources, such as Babble, can act supportively for parents and therefore, are worthy of further development and exploration.