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Study: Unborn children are affected by domestic violence

Jan 2, 2015

A new study suggests domestic violence during pregnancy has long-term effects on the unborn child.   That’s according to a new Michigan State University study.

The study of 182 mothers ages 18-34 found a surprisingly strong relationship between a mother’s prenatal abuse by a male partner and postnatal trauma symptoms in her child.

The 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.

Alytia Levendosky is a psychology professor and the director of clinical training in the MSU Department of Psychology. She says one-year-old children of women abused during their pregnancies often avoid physical contact, are bothered by bright lights and are tense or fearful.

“All of these are obviously very unusual behaviors to see in a one-year-old.” says Levendosky, “Those are … trauma response signs.”

MSU researchers believe stress hormones released by the abused mother during pregnancy lead to the long-term effects in their children.

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.

Levendosky says it’s important for doctors to monitor expectant mothers for potential domestic violence.

Levendosky says the findings run counter to what many victims of domestic violence believe. In her practice, she has counseled many domestic violence victims who do not believe their children are affected until they are older and can understand the situation. 

“These findings send a strong message that the violence is affecting the baby even before the baby is born,” says Levendosky.

The study appears in the research journal Child Abuse & Neglect.