Domestic abuse during pregnancy may harm babies

"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," says Alytia Levendosky. (Credit: iStockphoto)

Children whose mothers were abused while pregnant are at higher risk of emotional and behavioral issues in their first year of life.

A new study finds that these children may display symptoms that include nightmares, startling easily, being bothered by loud noises and bright lights, avoiding physical contact, and having trouble experiencing enjoyment.

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“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,” says Alytia Levendosky, professor of psychology at Michigan State University.

Published in Child Abuse & Neglect, the study of 182 mothers ages 18-34 shows a surprisingly strong relationship between a mother’s prenatal abuse by a male partner and postnatal trauma symptoms in her child.

Researchers examined the women’s parenting styles and also took into account risk factors such as drug use and other negative life events, marital status, age, and income.

Cortisol’s role

Prenatal abuse could cause changes in the mother’s stress response systems, increasing her levels of the hormone cortisol, which in turn could increase cortisol levels in the fetus.

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

Domestic violence survivors often don’t believe the abuse will affect their child until the child is old enough to understand what is going on, Levendosky says.

“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,'” she says.

“But I think these findings send a strong message that the violence is affecting the baby even before the baby is born.”

Source: Michigan State University