Balancing hope and reality: Caregiving dilemmas for neonatal nurses in caring for extremely premature babies

Author: Janet Anne Green

Green, Janet Anne, 2007 Balancing hope and reality: Caregiving dilemmas for neonatal nurses in caring for extremely premature babies, Flinders University, School of Nursing & Midwifery

Terms of Use: This electronic version is (or will be) made publicly available by Flinders University in accordance with its open access policy for student theses. Copyright in this thesis remains with the author. You may use this material for uses permitted under the Copyright Act 1968. If you are the owner of any included third party copyright material and/or you believe that any material has been made available without permission of the copyright owner please contact with the details.


As the capacity for saving smaller and smaller infants increases, the ethical dilemmas experienced by neonatal nurses who care for the smallest and most fragile of human beings will also increase. The current approaches to the resuscitation and management of extremely premature infants (24 weeks gestation and less) has resulted in the survival of infants with far less than optimal outcome. Neonatal nurses have begun to question saving the lives of extremely premature infants just because the technology exists to do so. This study explores the ethical issues faced by neonatal nurses caring for infants of 24 weeks gestation and less. The research question arose out of the need for neonatal nurses to articulate the ethical issues that they face in clinical practice when caring for extremely premature infants. The study design takes a dual approach to the research question, namely, a survey questionnaire and a qualitative analysis informed by phenomenology. Given the complexities of the issues within the topic, this combination of methods was deemed to be the most appropriate in gaining a convincing and authentic result. The results of this research are not generalisable to the experience of other nurses, or nurses caring for other groups of premature infants. In the first stage of the study neonatal nurses, members of the Australian Association of Neonatal Nurses (ANNA), were surveyed using a self-completion questionnaire. Then, in the qualitative component of this study fourteen (14) interviews with neonatal nurses were undertaken. These were either single or focus group interviews. In all, twenty four neonatal nurses from the state of New South Wales (NSW) and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) were interviewed about their experiences of caring for infants of 24 weeks gestation and less. The questions asked during the interviews were based on findings from the questionnaire. The interview data was analysed using a qualitative approach informed by interpretative phenomenology. The qualitative analysis revealed that the ethical dilemmas faced by the nurses existed within four themes. The four themes are: • It’s all about this baby • Having a voice • Dealing with awfulness • Reflecting on the outcome. The qualitative description as given in the four themes reveals structures and meanings about what it is to be the neonatal nurse who experiences ethical dilemmas when caring for extremely premature infants. The study and its findings are a written account of the experiences of neonatal nurses and their ethical dilemmas in caring for infants of 24 weeks gestation and less. The meanings within the nurses’ experiences are offered and the final phenomenological description, Balancing hope with reality, is given. Hope has a buffering effect on the nurses. The nurses inspire and instil hope in themselves and a baby’s parents until the reality of a poor outcome dawns. Each time an extremely premature baby is born the nurses are hopeful for a good outcome, but the reality is that they have experienced many instances in which babies die or have a poor outcome. The neonatal nurses, affected by their experiences of ethical distress, attempted to find a pathway to achieve a balance between their emotions and caring for the baby. In doing so the nurses were able to remain productive the neonatal intensive care unit, and give high quality care to the baby and compassion to the parents. This study makes an important contribution to neonatal nursing knowledge and practice by exploring the ethical dilemmas and complexities associated with extremely premature infants. This study also makes a unique contribution to the body of literature on ethical dilemmas experienced by neonatal nurses.

Keywords: extremely premature babies,prematurity,microprems,ethics,neonatal nurses

Subject: Nursing thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2007
School: School of Nursing & Midwifery
Supervisor: Professor Philip Darbyshire