Military Wives at Risk of Pregnancy Problems

A new study finds a connection between military wives whose husbands are overseas and stress-related prenatal and postnatal outcomes, like postpartum depression.

Military Wives at Risk of Pregnancy Problems

If you're pregnant and your baby's daddy is deployed, take caution. A new study, published in Obstetrics & Gynecology, has found that expectant military wives left behind when their husbands are fighting overseas are three times more likely to experience premature birth or postpartum depression (PPD).

This research looked at nearly 400 pregnant women expecting their first baby while living at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. The pool consisted of two groups: those whose husbands were deployed to combat (183) and those whose husbands were on the military base (214 women). Within the first group, approximately 21 percent of the subjects experienced preterm birth and delivered their babies before 37 weeks. Within the second group, just 7 percent of women went into early labor. What's more, 16 percent of women in the first group suffered from PPD, while just 6 percent of women in the second group did.

The stress of deployment

Study author, U.S. Army captain, and an obstetrician/gynecologist with Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg, Christopher Tarney, M.D., notes that the obvious anguish that comes from not knowing whether your loved one is safe causes a rise in stress-related hormones, which can be detrimental to prenatal health. He attributes the lack of control over deployment status and lack of communication as factors contributing to the overall stress level in pregnant women.

"The [army] tend[s] to deploy to regions where there isn't that access, and so a lot of those spouses can go prolonged periods of time without knowing what's really going on," Tarney told HealthDay.

Thankfully, doctors at Womack have taken steps in an effort to help ameliorate the unintended consequences of deployment on growing families. Considering that couples living on the military base don't have contiguous support from their friends and family, the medical center arranged for small groups of women with proximal due dates to meet with an obstetrician and essentially create a support group as they learn about pregnancy and child-rearing. Although the researchers have yet to find strong evidence that the group prenatal care is effective at lowering stress levels and improving pregnancy outcomes, they are hopeful that there is some "protective effect."

"As military physicians, we can't tell commanders and we can't tell Congress not to deploy soldiers," Tarney said. "That's why it's on us as military physicians to find some other strategies to ensure that even when these soldiers are deployed, we're still doing our best for their families."

Reducing your risks

As far as how military wives can try to mitigate their risk of preterm delivery and PPD, associate dean at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Nursing Nancy M. Valentine, RN, PhD, believes that there's no one-size-fits-all intervention but that knowledge of risk factors is very important.

"One of the most powerful interventions is to educate women early on. Let them know that because of their military situation, they could potentially be at higher risk. It doesn't mean they're going to have these problems, but it engages the mother to work out a care plan," she says, adding that women shouldn't be alarmed but, rather, motivated to do some planning. This means having discussions early and often with care providers to figure out what will work for you. That might entail returning home to be with your parents or other support people, or calling upon friends at the base to provide help. Valentine also strongly recommends enlisting the help of midwives, who are knowledgeable about how to support women throughout their pregnancy and create an empowering model of care.

The March of Dimes also recommends getting adequate sleep, eating small meals, drinking plenty of fluids, and exercising about 30 minutes a day (as long as you have permission from your health care provider) to keep stress levels in check. Asking for help from people you trust and relaxation activities like prenatal yoga and meditation can also help.