A new study assessing the interaction of traumas from new and old relationships in women three to 18 months after the birth of their child — one of the most challenging periods of their lives — has found that new experiences of sexual, emotional and physical abuse at the hands of a romantic partner are associated with increasing symptoms of trauma, such as anxiety, depression, self-harm, and sleep disorders.
The study also found that having experienced abuse in childhood appears to worsen the impact of current abuse on those symptoms of trauma in the women, according to researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the United States.
The new research points to postnatal medical screenings as a potential point of intervention, according to the researchers. That gives health practitioners the opportunity to help young mothers recognize the signs of abuse and take steps to protect themselves and their children from harm, the researchers explained.
The new research also suggests that recent episodes of relationship trauma can exacerbate a woman’s mental health problems above and beyond symptoms tied to childhood experiences of maltreatment, according to the researchers.
The study’s findings also indicate that interventions at this time of life may help alleviate a woman’s symptoms, despite her personal history, the researchers noted.
Previous studies have shown that intimate partner violence sometimes increases after parents bring a newborn into the home, said Patricia Cintora, a graduate student in the neuroscience program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who led the research with University of Illinois psychology professor Heidemarie Kaiser Laurent.
“In addition to the physical changes of pregnancy, there are a lot of emotional, social, and economic changes that come along with parenthood that may cause stress or magnify prior stressors that feed into intimate partner violence,” Cintora said. “Rather than focusing on specific categories of abuse that fall under the umbrella of intimate partner violence, we decided to look at the total number of experiences and severity.”
For the new study, the researchers followed 85 low-income women after the birth of a child. The women checked in at three, six, 12, and 18 months postpartum. They answered questions from standardized checklists designed to determine their trauma symptoms, history of childhood maltreatment, and exposure to — or perpetuation of — intimate partner violence, the researchers explained.
“We found that the higher their scores for experiencing intimate partner violence, the more symptoms they reported,” Cintora said. “We also saw that relative changes in their experience over time had an important effect on their symptoms.”
Women who experienced childhood maltreatment also tended to report higher levels of traumatic stress in response to recent episodes of intimate partner violence, she said.
“This work is important because it highlights both the harms of worsening postpartum relationship dynamics — even before they reach clinically recognized abuse thresholds — and the opportunity to beneficially impact women’s health during this critical time,” said Laurent, who is a professor in the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology and an affiliate of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the university.
The new study was published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress.