Background: Physical and emotional parent-infant closeness activate important neurobiological mechanisms involved in parenting. In a neonatal care context, most research focuses on physical (parental presence, skin-to-skin contact) aspects; insights into emotional closeness can be masked by findings that overemphasise the barriers or challenges to parenting an infant during neonatal care. Aim: To explore existing qualitative research to identify what facilitates and enables parents' experiences of emotional closeness to their infants while cared for in a neonatal unit. Study design: A systematic review using meta-ethnographic methods. Search strategy involved searches on six databases, author runs, and backward and forward chaining. Reciprocal translation was used to identify and compare key concepts of parent-infant emotional closeness. Results: Searches identified 6992 hits, and 34 studies from 17 countries that involved 670 parents were included. Three overarching themes and associated sub-themes were developed. ‘Embodied connections’ describes how emotional closeness was facilitated by reciprocal parent-infant interactions, spending time as a family, and methods for parents to feel connected while physically separated. ‘Inner knowing’ concerns how knowledge about infant and maternal health and understanding the norms of neonatal care facilitated emotional closeness. ‘Evolving parental role’ relates to how emotional closeness was intertwined with parental identities of contributing to infant health, providing direct care, and being acknowledged as a parent. Conclusion: Parent-infant closeness evolves and is facilitated by multifaceted biopsychosocial factors. Practice implications include creating private and uninterrupted family time, strategies for parents to maintain an emotional connection to their infant when separated, and neurobiology education for staff.
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