University Study Links Domestic Violence Against Pregnant Women to Infants’ Developmental Problems

Scientists at Michigan State University have found that women who are subjected to domestic violence when they are pregnant are more likely that other pregnant women to give birth to children who exhibit emotional and behavioral problems as infants.

alytia-levendosky_lgAlytia Levendosky, a professor of psychology at Michigan State and co-author of the study, says that pregnant women who are victims of domestic violence have increased levels of the hormone cortisol in response to high levels of stress. These high cortisol levels impact the fetus. “Cortisol is a neurotoxic, so it has damaging effects on the brain when elevated to excessive levels,” Dr. Levendosky reports. “That might explain the emotional problems for the baby after birth.”

Professor Levendosky adds that “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.’ But I think these findings send a strong message that the violence is affecting the baby even before the baby is born.”

Professor Levendosky has been on the faculty at Michigan State University since 1995. She is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard University and holds a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Michigan.

The study, “Relational Trauma in the Context of Intimate Partner Violence,” was published in the December issue of the research journal Child Abuse & Neglect. It may be accessed here.

Filed Under: Research/StudySexual Assault/Harassment


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