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The impact of military sexual trauma on parent-infant bonding in a sample of perinatal women veterans.

BACKGROUND: The experience of sexual assault and harassment during military service (military sexual trauma [MST]) is associated with increased risk for perinatal and reproductive health problems among women veterans. The objective of this study was to examine the associations between mothers' MST exposure and mother-infant bonding, as well as to examine whether there are any salient sociodemographic or military service characteristics among women veterans with greater impairment to mother-infant bonding, including stress during pregnancy and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis.

METHODS: This study was a secondary analysis of data collected from prospective, longitudinal study of women veterans using VHA maternity care benefits at 15 VHA medical centers across the US between January 2016 and February 2020. Participants were 697 pregnant veterans using VHA maternity care benefits.

RESULTS: MST was associated with higher maternal depression, and higher maternal depression was associated with poorer mother-infant bonding. The effect of MST on bonding was indirect through depression. PTSD diagnosis and life stressors during pregnancy also had significant indirect pathways with bonding through maternal depression.

CONCLUSIONS: Results underscore the need for access to high quality and trauma-informed perinatal mental health treatment for women veterans, for education on the unique risks conveyed by MST provided to civilian providers treating this population outside VA, and for further research to understand how to ameliorate the harmful effects of MST on perinatal women veterans and their children.

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