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Stanford/VA study finds link between PTSD and premature birth

Scientists have long suspected that post-traumatic stress disorder raises a pregnant woman’s risk of giving birth prematurely. Now, new research from Stanford and the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs confirms these suspicions.

Women with “active” PTSD, diagnosed in the year before they gave birth, were 35 percent more likely than those without PTSD to spontaneously go into labor early and deliver a premature baby, the study found. Women whose PTSD had been diagnosed further in the past were not at increased risk, however.

The findings, published today in Obstetrics & Gynecology, are based on data from 16,344 births to female veterans. All of the women had been screened for PTSD. The researchers found that 3,049 babies were born to women diagnosed with the disorder at some point prior to delivery, and of these, 1,921 births were to women who had active PTSD.

“This study gives us a convincing epidemiological basis to say that, yes, PTSD is a risk factor for preterm delivery,” the study’s senior author, Ciaran Phibbs, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics and an investigator at the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center at Stanford University, said in a press release. “Mothers with PTSD should be treated as having high-risk pregnancies.”

The VA has already adopted Phibbs’ recommendation for their patients and is now including a recent PTSD diagnosis among the factors that flag a woman’s pregnancy as high-risk. But the findings aren’t just for veterans, Phibbs told me. “The prevalence of PTSD is higher among veterans, but it’s still reasonably common in the general population,” he said. Nor was the PTSD-prematurity link limited to women with combat experience, he said. Half of the women in the study who had PTSD diagnoses had never been deployed.

Spontaneous premature labor, the focus of this study, accounts for about half of premature births. Phibbs’ team is now investigating the other half of preterm births: They are examining whether PTSD also influences a mother’s risk of developing medical conditions that could cause her physician to recommend an early delivery for the sake of the mother’s or baby’s health.

Previously: Maternal obesity linked to earliest premature births, says Stanford studyThe year in the life of a preemie - and his parents and How Stanford researchers are working to understand the complexities of preterm birth
Photo by Stefan Pasch

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