Researchers have found a surprisingly strong connection between the domestic abuse of a pregnant woman and postnatal trauma symptoms in her child, according to a new study at Michigan State University.
Their findings are published in the research journal Child Abuse & Neglect.
The study is the first to link abuse of pregnant women with trauma symptoms in their babies within the first year of life. Symptoms include nightmares, startling easily, being bothered by loud noises and bright lights, avoiding physical contact, and having trouble experiencing enjoyment.
“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,” said study co-author Dr. Alytia Levendosky, a professor of psychology at the university.
Prenatal abuse could cause changes in the mother’s stress response systems, said Levendosky. Abuse would increase her levels of the hormone cortisol, which in turn could increase cortisol levels in her unborn baby.
“Cortisol is a neurotoxic, so it has damaging effects on the brain when elevated to excessive levels,” Levendosky said. “That might explain the emotional problems for the baby after birth.”
The study, which involved 182 mothers aged 18-34, took into account the women’s parenting styles and also factored in other risks such as drug use and other negative life events, marital status, age, and income.
Levendosky, a clinical psychologist for nearly 20 years, has counseled many victims of domestic violence who didn’t think the abuse would affect their baby until the he or she was old enough to understand what was happening.
“They might say things like, ‘Oh, I have to leave my partner when my baby gets to be so-and-so age — you know, three or four years old — but until then, you know, it’s not really affecting him, he won’t really remember it,’” she said.
“But I think these findings send a strong message that the violence is affecting the baby even before the baby is born.”
Levendosky’s co-researchers include Brittany Lannert, Ph.D., a former doctoral student, and psychology professors Drs. Anne Bogat and Joseph Lonstein.
Previous studies by other research teams show similar findings. One recent mouse study, for example, conducted by researchers at the University of Edinburgh, showed that fetuses who were exposed to excessive levels of stress hormones in the womb went on to develop mood disorders later in life.
Source: Michigan State University