War is tough on the soldiers sent to fight, but it also might have consequences for wives left behind, a new study suggests.
Pregnant military wives are three times more likely to have a preterm birth or suffer postpartum depression if their spouses are deployed during the entire pregnancy, compared with those whose spouses are serving stateside, a new study reports.
“The stress and the anxiety of not knowing whether your husband was alive during that period” can cause an increase in stress-related hormones in the body, and that stress may interfere with women’s pregnancies, said Dr. Christopher Tarney, a U.S. Army captain and an obstetrician/gynecologist with Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Women also might be stressed out because they are going through pregnancy without the support of their spouse, and often without other family or friends around to help, Tarney added.
“We’ve been at war since 2001,” he said. “It’s time we start focusing on the spouse and the family members to see what effects these wars have played.”
The study focused on 397 women at Fort Bragg who were having their first baby. Of those women, 183 had spouses deployed to a combat zone, while the rest had spouses serving at the military base.
About 21 percent of women with deployed spouses had a preterm birth, meaning they delivered before 37 weeks of gestation. Only 7 percent of women with spouses serving at home had preterm births, the findings showed.
Wives of deployed soldiers also suffered higher rates of postpartum depression, with 16 percent struggling with their mood compared to 6 percent of wives with stateside spouses, according to the report.
Modern communications technology can keep wives in better touch with their deployed spouses, and that might be helpful, Tarney said.
However, many women at Fort Bragg don’t have that option, given that the base serves as home to many special operations commands. “They tend 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 said.
It also can be difficult for soldiers to get leave so they can be with their pregnant wives. “It’s at the discretion of the commander to determine whether the mission will permit the soldier to come back,” Tarney said. Unless the pregnancy is high-risk, there’s not much chance the soldier will be sent home, he added.
Doctors at Womack have set up a group prenatal-care program to better help wives of deployed soldiers, Tarney said. Groups of 10 to 12 women with similar due dates meet with an obstetrician at the same time, forming an ad hoc support group while they receive education for expecting mothers.
“You take a group of women and they go through pregnancy together,” said Dr. Wilma Larsen, vice chairwoman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology at Baylor Scott & White Health in Temple, Texas, and an associate professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine. “That group becomes bonded and gets to know each other, and it can be very beneficial,” Larsen said.
The study looked at whether group prenatal care can help lower women’s stress and improve their pregnancies, but the results were inconclusive.
“We showed a trend toward a protective effect, but given we didn’t have enough numbers, we couldn’t really draw statistical significance from it,” Tarney said.
Wives whose spouses are deployed also might consider staying with their parents or siblings during their pregnancy, explained Larsen, who is a retired Army colonel.
“Going back to stay with family can be helpful, in terms of decreasing stress,” she said. “Faith, family and friends are probably the three things that can be most helpful in that situation.”
Military doctors are brainstorming other ways to help the pregnant wives of deployed soldiers, given the results of this study, Tarney said.
“As military physicians, we can’t tell commanders and we can’t tell Congress not to deploy soldiers,” he 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.”
The study is published in the September issue of the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology.
For more on stress and pregnancy, visit the March of Dimes.