Domestic Violence During Pregnancy Linked to Baby’s Brain Development

A new study reveals that domestic abuse in women during pregnancy can notably disturb the baby’s brain development.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Bath and the University of Cape Town, collected 143 brain scans of South African infants whose mothers were victims of intimate partner violence (IPV) during their pregnancy. On average, babies’ brain scans were taken at three weeks old to depict any modifications that may have progressed in the womb.

The research utilized data from the Drakenstein Child Health Study (DCHS). IPV can refer to both physical and emotional abuse and also sexual assault. Stalking is also considered IPV by the CDC. IPV is common, affecting millions of individuals in the United States annually. The CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) reveals that around 41% of women and 26% of men experienced IPV from their intimate partner.

Data shows that approximately 61 million women and 53 million men have undergone psychological aggression by their partners throughout their lifetime. The study, published in the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, suggests that mothers victimized by IPV during pregnancy are linked with brain structure modification in their infants soon after birth. The study took into consideration maternal alcohol and tobacco usage throughout pregnancy, along with pregnancy complications.

A crucial part of the study was that the consequences of IPV during pregnancy varied by the baby’s sex. For example, baby girls were linked with a smaller amygdala, which is responsible for emotional and social development. For baby boys, IPV exposure was linked with a larger caudate nucleus, which manages numerous tasks, including movement, learning, memory, reward, and motivation.

These brain structure impairments at such a young age are associated with more vulnerability to psychological symptoms in childhood or even adulthood. Sex contrast between girls and boys may possibly explain the different mental health complications they have later in life.

The researchers, however, did not look into emotional and cognitive maturing in children. "Our findings are a call to action on the three Rs of domestic violence awareness: recognize, respond, and refer. Preventing or quickly acting to help women escape domestic violence may be an effective way of supporting healthy brain development in children," said Lucy Hiscox, the lead researcher from the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath.

Prior research analyzed the effects of maternal stress during pregnancy and its influence on children’s brain growth, but this study is the first to examine the impacts of domestic violence.

The newborn babies involved in the study are now around eight or nine and will be followed up to see if their brain structure is still similar to how they were at three weeks. Co-author Professor Kirsty Donald, M.D., a pediatric neurologist and Head of the Division of Developmental Pediatrics at the University of Cape Town, concluded: "Strategies that help identify and support pregnant mums for multiple potential risks to their unborn babies will require an integrated health system approach and should be considered a public health priority."

How can we help with IPV?

IPV can be prevented by taking necessary steps through education. For example, we can utilize technology and implement social-emotional learning programs for youths, and relationship programs for couples.

It is also important to enhance school climate and well-being to generate a healthy and protective environment since young age. It is also crucial to reinforce financial support in families, and create a safe environment for any survivors and victims.

If you are experiencing IPV or know someone affected by IPV, it is important to seek help and equip necessary steps to provide support.


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