By Alli Benjamin
Following childbirth, many new moms are advised by their doctor to take one year to heal and return to pre-pregnancy weight. For active duty women in the U.S. Air Force, this wasn’t an option until March 2015, when the policy changed that required new mothers returning to work to pass a rigorous fitness test just six months after giving birth.
This policy change was informed by data gathered and published by Nursing alumna Nicole Armitage, PhD. A women’s health nurse practitioner in the U. S. Air Force, she was interested in women’s experiences when returning to active duty following childbirth. Over her years in practice, she observed that these women were consistently overwhelmed while training to pass their fitness assessment.
“While most women can and do pass the fitness test, it puts a huge amount of pressure on them during an already emotionally charged time,” Armitage said. “They are balancing a new baby, professional commitments, and preparing to return to work. They feel vulnerable and it’s a stressful time; postpartum depression is also common.”
From her vantage point, Armitage observed worrisome red flags with this population: extreme dieting, exercise and weight loss; early quitting of breast-feeding; and increased injuries. In searching for related data, she found little to nothing published on these women’s experiences.
Seeing an opportunity to better understand what was happening, Armitage conducted a phenomenologic inquiry, which looks at what people experience in regard to some phenomenon and how they interpret those experiences. She interviewed 17 active duty new mothers who took the fitness test six months post-childbirth.
“I wanted to capture the attitudes of mothers’ following childbirth and returning to active duty, followed by communicating that information to the military and health providers. These women’s experiences mirrored what I observed in practice; many struggled to get back into shape, suffered from related anxiety, and engaged in unhealthy weight loss behaviors,” Armitage said.
In May 2013, Armitage completed her PhD and soon thereafter her research findings were published in Military Medicine, a monthly peer-reviewed journal for healthcare professionals working in Veteran’s Affairs, the Department of Defense, and the U.S. Public Health Service. Later she was contacted by an executive officer in the Air Force because they were looking for evidence to inform policy change that support female Airmen.
“For the Air Force, the goal was to alleviate the strain some new mothers experience as they struggle to balance deployment and families,” Armitage said. “My goal with this research was always threefold: to change clinical practice, change policy, and evaluate how we can better support women in the military.”
And her research did that – changed policy to support childbearing women and their families in the Air Force.
“It is wonderful to see this happening, and for the Air Force – they will hopefully be able to better retain high performing female Airmen.”