Researchers have known for some time that children learn even while in the womb. The experiences outside of the womb can still affect the unborn if these experiences affect the mother and how the mother reacts to these experiences. Recent research by Michigan State University has once again demonstrated this.
Their recent study found a link between domestic abuse of pregnant women and childhood trauma symptoms within the first year of life. Childhood symptoms include nightmares, startling easily, being bothered by loud noises and bright lights, avoiding physical contact and having trouble experiencing enjoyment.
We believe children develop these anxious behaviors, even within the first year, for three main reasons:
- During their early developmental process, and even while in the womb, these babies learned that life can be dangerous based on the mother’s reaction.
- Babies are ‘learning machines’ and learn a great deal even within the first year. Being in an abusive environment, even within the first year, can influence what the baby internalizes (the development of the baby’s system of beliefs and resulting behaviors).
- Experiencing stress responses during development can cause developmental changes.
For example, Levendosky said 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.
“Cortisol is a neurotoxic, so it has damaging effects on the brain when elevated to excessive levels,” Levendosky said. “That might explain the emotional problems for the baby after birth.”
When you combine all of these factors (there are more), one thing is evident: the environment the baby experiences, even while in the womb, can affect how the baby develops and learns to respond to life from that point on.
A clinical psychologist for nearly 20 years, Levendosky has counseled many domestic violence survivors who didn’t believe the abuse would affect their child until the child was old enough to understand what was going on.
“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.”
“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,” said Alytia Levendosky, psychology professor and study co-author.
The study appears in the research journal Child Abuse & Neglect. Levendosky’s co-researchers include Brittany Lannert, a former doctoral student, and psychology professors Anne Bogat and Joseph Lonstein.