Witnessing intimate-partner violence as a child may have an intergenerational effect, a new article in journal Stress suggests.
A set of four researchers at the E.P. Bradley Hospital and The Miriam Hospital, both affiliates of Brown University, looked at the effects of a mother witnessing domestic violence as a child and prenatal environments on their newborn babies. One month after birth, babies born to mothers who had seen intimate-partner violence had higher baseline levels of stress hormone, cortisol.
When a person faces a stressor, their cortisol levels rise, but the babies had poorer responses compared to those with mothers that did not witness IPV, according to the study.
“The paper demonstrates the really range effects of witnessing violence early in childhood,” said author Laura Stroud. “That witnessing violence in childhood impacts the biology of the next generation.”
Researchers also looked at the effect of the prenatal environment on the baby a couple days after birth and found that prenatal family function is associated with a change in infant cortisol levels two days after birth, according to the study.
According to the study, a mother’s history of witnessing intimate partner violence as a child did not result in a change in cortisol levels to the babies two days after birth. The prenatal family function did not see a change in cortisol levels for the baby one month after birth.
While the authors did not make specific predictions for the study, Stroud, senior research scientist at The Miriam Hospital’s Centers for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine, said that they “definitely did not predict that one would affect the super early development and one would affect the one-month development.”
Cortisol can pass from the mother through the placenta to the fetus, Stroud said.
The higher baseline cortisol levels suggests that a baby may have hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis dysfunction. The HPA is feedback loop in the brain, made of up the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and adrenal glands and regulates the release of cortisol.
The one-month functioning may be an early indicator for the babies’ risks of developing psychopathology, according to the study, due to the HPA functioning in early childhood being linked to development and psychosocial health.
Stroud, along with co-authors, expected to see that a mother’s early childhood experience may be mitigated by positive family environments during pregnancy, Stroud said. But that was not the case.
“It just highlights the far-reaching effects of early family environment and also the need to really intervene and help,” Stroud said.
Babies were not tested after one month, she said, although there are other studies looking at the effects of adverse early childhood experiences (ACEs) on children and their future offspring.
The study may be the first to show a link between a mother witnessing IPV as a child and her baby’s HPA function, authors wrote. While it may be the first, there is a body of evidence suggesting that ACEs have long-lasting effects on children and their future offspring.
When there is violence in a household, it harms the child and the parents, said Lynn Davis, Frederick County Public School’s mental health coordinator. Davis is the former director of the Child Advocacy Center.
“Babies can be influenced by not only by their mother’s traumatic stress after they’re born, but also at the time of conception and in utero, so there’s just so many [ways],” Davis said. “Beyond that as a child grows, being exposed to environments that in some way are fundamentally unsafe continues to influence the child.”
It is well established that exposure to IPV has an effect on children, Davis said, but it also presents challenges to a mother’s ability to parent and nurture her children “because she’s living in a war zone.”
In the school system, Davis is working to help better trauma-informed approaches to children in the school system who have had one or more adverse childhood experiences.
In 2016, 52,578 adults reported have three or more ACEs, according to county health department data. ACEs, along with infant health, is one of three current health priorities for the county.
Davis said she would like to see more screening in primary care physician offices to help parents who might have had an adverse childhood experience (or more), as well as children currently experiencing one.
Home visits can also help identify people and children who need additional help due to their ACEs, Davis said.
Children who have biological stress in their lives have a stress response that’s always on, Davis said. Over the course of a lifetime, they’ll have an increased risk for metabolic diseases, like heart disease.
“Untreated, that stress response system just stays on,” Davis said. “And so there are trauma treatments that help regulate this dysregulated biology, and so the sooner that we get children and adults linked to that, the better chance we have of preventing long-term negative health outcomes, which is one argument for screening.”
There are treatments available for children who experience an ACE, Davis said. In the schools, they use a trauma-informed approach to help the child in school.
It can be providing an adult role model to help teach the child about positive interactions with adults. Some children may act out, while others will retreat, Davis said.
Now in Frederick, police can alert the school system by sending a “Handle With Care” notice to the school so that school professionals known when a child might need extra attention or help.
But it is not just about helping the child, Davis said. She’s an advocate of a two-generation approach, which involves bringing different community agencies together. This would help with joint screening of parents and children, she said.
“Parents matter, too. And when they get healthy, children get healthy, too,” Davis said.
Stroud said that the study is part of a larger project looking at longitudinal studies involving mothers and their children. In the future, she’d like to look at behaviors in the children who are born to mothers who witnessed IPV as children. Other studies suggest that these infants may be harder to soothe.
But like Davis, she said the focus cannot just be on the children. Mothers and their needs should also be addressed. Society needs to be aware of early childhood well-being and stressors, as well, she said, so that it can better protect mothers and their children.