U. WASHINGTON (US) — Mothers who were abused as children have increased risk for giving birth to low-weight babies, a condition linked to infant mortality and chronic health problems.
Childhood poverty and substance use during adolescence and pregnancy also contribute to low birth weight.
“Our findings suggest that a mother’s economic position in childhood and her experience of maltreatment during childhood have implications for her children born years later,” says Amelia Gavin, assistant professor of social work at the University of Washington.
Study results are reported online in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Each year about 8 percent of babies in the U.S. are born weighing less than 2,500 grams, or about five and a half pounds. Low birth weight—due to growth restriction in the womb or from being born prematurely—puts newborns at a greater risk for death before their first birthday.
Babies with low birth weights who survive their first year are more likely to develop obesity, diabetes, and other health risks later in life. The rate of these births has increased since the mid-1980s even as prenatal care has improved.
“What matters most for healthy birth weights is the health status the mother brings into pregnancy,” Gavin says. “We’re trying to map pathways of early life exposures that lead to low birth weight.”
Gavin examined data from an ethnically diverse sample of 136 mothers participating in the Seattle Social Development Project since childhood. The long-term project looks for ways to enhance positive development and reduce drug use, delinquency, and risky sexual behaviors among adolescents and young adults.
Looking at mothers who had children after age 18, Gavin’s analysis allowed her to see the extent to which mothers abused emotionally, sexually, and physically before age 10 affected the birth weights of their children.
Also considered were the effects of childhood poverty and substance use—including binge drinking, smoking cigarettes and marijuana and other drug use—during high school and pregnancy.
Maltreatment during childhood was a strong predictor of substance use during high school. Most significantly, women who abused drugs during high school were more likely to smoke and drink alcohol during later pregnancies.
“We know that cigarette smoking and heavy alcohol use during pregnancy lead to low birth weights, and we know to warn expecting mothers about those risks,” Gavin says.
“Now, the results of this study show that women maltreated during childhood are more likely to use substances during pregnancy, which increases their risk of delivering low birth weight infants.”
Obstetric practitioners should add universal screening of prospective mothers for childhood maltreatment to identify and provide services to women at risk for prenatal substance use, Gavin says.
“It was the mother’s experience of poverty and maltreatment in childhood, not her poverty or depression or obesity in adulthood, that contributed to her infant’s low birth weight.”
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