Army Babies: Fort Bragg Study Links Deployments, Preterm

Mother holds baby born prematurely.

It's no secret that deployments can be high-stress affairs.

But doctors at the home of the nation's most deployed troops have found the constant cycle of sending service members overseas has a deeper effect on growing families than was previously known.

A study of patients at Fort Bragg's Womack Army Medical Center has shown a correlation between deployments and a higher rate of preterm deliveries and postpartum depression.

Womack hosts roughly 3,000 births each year, an average of more than eight per day.

The study -- published in The Internet Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics and in the September issue of the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology -- was led by Capt. Christopher Tarney, a doctor of obstetrics and gynecology at Womack.

Tarney said the impetus behind the research came while he was studying at Walter Reed National Medical Center. There, Tarney said he found a number of studies on physical and psychological effects from troops being overseas.

But something was lacking in the research on deployments.

"There was lots of research about the warfighter and the effects of deployment," Tarney said. "On family members? Not a lot of data."

Tarney and three co-authors, all based at Fort Bragg, have changed that, hopefully opening opportunities for further study, Tarney said.

The research, titled "Effects of Military Deployment on Pregnancy Outcomes," used more than 300 anonymous surveys of patients at Womack.

Using those surveys, researchers compared women whose spouses were deployed during their first pregnancy to those whose spouses were not deployed.

The results confirmed what Tarney said he saw anecdotally at Fort Bragg.

Women with deployed spouses were more than twice as likely to give birth early, and their risk of postpartum depression nearly doubled.

The study calls the affected family members the "overlooked casualties of war" and notes the stress families of deployed troops endure.

Further complicating matters is the fact that pregnancy rates among women married to active-duty troops dramatically increase before deployments, the researchers note.

Per the study's surveys, more than 38 percent of women with deployed spouses reported moderate to severe stress during their pregnancy, compared with just more than 20 percent of spouses in the nondeployed group.

The rate of preterm births -- defined as birth before 37 weeks gestation -- was 8.9 percent for women whose spouses were not deployed, according to the research. That rate was 21.4 percent for spouses of deployed troops.

Babies born early are at higher risk for central nervous system disorders, chronic respiratory problems, infections, developmental impairments, cardiovascular disorders and cognitive dysfunction.

Tarney said researchers are looking into ways to mitigate risks among pregnant women with deployed spouses.

He and others are preparing a larger study that will take place at Womack and other military hospitals, he said.

Other researchers, mostly from Veterans Affairs hospitals, also have reached out.

"A lot of us are putting more attention onto it," he said. "I definitely hope it does open floodgates. We owe it to our population."

Tarney said he believes grouping women together, based on similar due dates, could alleviate some of the at-home stress and anxiety caused by deployments.

He said having women share appointments lowers risks for preterm births. That's a practice Womack has already implemented.

Tarney said that's likely a benefit of having a social support structure that a pregnant spouse may not otherwise have with her partner deployed.

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