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How domestic violence impacts prenatal development

In a study published in the December issue of Child Abuse and Neglect, Michigan State University researchers looked at how domestic abuse of a pregnant women affected not only the woman, but the developing fetus. Their findings suggest that domestic abuse of pregnant women may have further reaching implications than was previously understood.

The study, titled, “Relational trauma in the context of intimate partner violence,” was led by professor of psychology at MSU, Alytia Levendosky. Her research is the first to examine the effects of domestic violence toward pregnant women and the behavioral trauma symptoms exhibited during the child’s first year of living.

Michigan State University Professor Alytia Levendosky
Michigan State University Professor – Alytia Levendosky

The findings show a strong correlation between trauma symptoms during the child’s first year and abuse of the mother during prenatal development. In a university press release, Levendosky explained that “Cortisol is a neurotoxin, so it has damaging effects on the brain when elevated to excessive levels … That might explain the emotional problems for the baby after birth.”

Levendosky hopes her work will provide extra incentive for pregnant women to exit abusive relationships knowing how it will also affect their unborn child. “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 … 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 said. “But I think these findings send a strong message that the violence is affecting the baby even before the baby is born.”


– Photo Credit: MSU Today, G.L. Kohuth

– Particulars from the study abstract: “In this research, we examined the direct and indirect effects of a traumatic event (maternal intimate partner violence [IPV]), maternal trauma symptoms, and impaired (harsh and neglectful) parenting on infant trauma symptoms in a sample of mother–infant dyads (N = 182) using structural equation modeling”

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