Children born to mothers who suffer from domestic abuse while pregnant are more likely to have lifelong mental scars. According to a new study from Germany’s University of Konstanz, mothers who experience undue stress during pregnancy can pass on emotional damage to their unborn children, leaving an imprint that has detrimental effects on their ability to cope with stress later in life. The details of the study can be found in the journal Translational Psychiatry.
The study focused on the effects of partner violence against women during pregnancy. Senior study author Helen Gunter pointed out, “This study is very specific to abuse. We did not look at the everyday stresses of working or having a family.”
For the analysis, the researchers queried 25 mothers regarding whether or not they had experienced extreme stress from an abusive relationship with a spouse or boyfriend during pregnancy, and then rated the emotional level of each woman interviewed. The research team then monitored the behavior of a specific gene among the children born to the mothers, who ranged in age from nine to nineteen years.
Findings showed that a gene associated with the brain’s response to stress, known as glucocorticoid receptor (GR), was significantly less active among children born to mothers who suffered from domestic abuse during pregnancy. No effects were seen on the behavior of the gene in children whose parent was abused after pregnancy.
The genetic difference among offspring born to mothers who were abused while pregnant appears to make the children more sensitized to stress, causing a much faster reaction to it both mentally and hormonally. As individuals, these children have a tendency to be more impulsive, and are more likely to struggle with their emotions.
According to Professor Thomas Elbert, one of the lead researchers, “It would appear that babies who get signals from their mum that they are being born into a dangerous world are faster responders. They have a lower threshold for stress and seem to be more sensitive to it.”