Domestic Abuse During Pregnancy Affects Baby Too

Domestic Abuse During PregnancyDomestic abuse likely affects children even before birth, suggests a new study from researchers at Michigan State University as published in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect. Children born to mothers who experienced domestic abuse during pregnancy are more likely to exhibit emotional and behavioral trauma symptoms within the first year of life.

Symptoms of emotional and behavioral trauma in young children include nightmares, startling easily, being bothered by loud noises and bright lights, avoiding physical contact, and having trouble experiencing enjoyment.

The present study looked at 182 mothers between the ages of 18 and 34 to examine the association, if any, between domestic abuse during pregnancy by a male partner experienced by a woman and postnatal trauma symptoms in her child.

The researchers also examined maternal parenting styles and took into account risk factors such as drug use and other negative life events, marital status, age, and income.

The study found a surprisingly strong relationship between domestic abuse during pregnancy and trauma symptoms in a child during the first year of life.

Psychology professor and study co-author Alytia Levendosky explains that domestic abuse can cause changes in maternal stress response systems, increasing her levels of the hormone cortisol. Increased maternal cortisol levels can cause an increase in fetal cortisol levels.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the brain that is released in response to stress and a low level of blood glucose. The hormone functions to increase blood sugar; suppress the immune system; and aid the metabolism of fat, protein, and carbohydrate. Excessive levels of cortisol in the blood can cause health problems including psychological problems.

Explains Levendosky, “Cortisol is a neurotoxic, so it has damaging effects on the brain when elevated to excessive levels. That might explain the emotional problems for the baby after birth.”

As a clinical psychologist for nearly 20 years, Levendosky has counseled many domestic violence survivors who did not believe that domestic abuse would affect a child until the child grew old enough to understand the abuse.

The present study, however, indicates that domestic abuse can affect a children, even when a mother experiences abuse while pregnant.

Comments Levendosky, “They might say things like, ‘Oh, I have to leave my partner when my baby gets to be so-and-so age – you know, 3 or 4 years old – but until then, you know, it’s not really affecting him, he won’t really remember it. But I think these findings send a strong message that the violence is affecting the baby even before the baby is born.”

She adds, “For clinicians and mothers, knowing that the prenatal experience of their domestic violence can directly harm their babies may be a powerful motivator to help moms get out of these abusive situations.”


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