October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. During this month, efforts to increase awareness regarding interpersonal violence are more prominent via media outlets and community events. Though interpersonal violence affects many different groups, a particularly vulnerable group are pregnant women. According to research by University of California at San Francisco, twenty percent (20%) of women experience violence during pregnancy. Experiencing interpersonal violence is more common for pregnant women than being diagnosed with gestational diabetes or pre-eclampsia. The interpersonal violence imposed upon a pregnant woman is also violence imposed upon her unborn child. This violence has negative effects for the unborn within the womb and can continue throughout the child’s lifespan.
Women who encounter interpersonal violence during their pregnancy are more likely to miss prenatal care appointments and/or are more likely to begin their prenatal care later in the pregnancy. Research by Case Western Reserve University shows that pregnant women experiencing interpersonal violence have higher rates of smoking, alcohol, and substance use, and suffer from higher rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)1. Poor nutrition and inadequate weight gain during pregnancy are also issues for women who experience interpersonal violence. Studies have shown that cortisol levels—a hormone released into the body during a stressful event—are higher in pregnant women who have experienced IPV, which in turn, leads to increased cortisol levels in her unborn child. These higher levels of stress hormones can cause lower infant birth rates and create damaging effects on the unborn child’s brain2.
Pregnant women who are assaulted are at eight (8) times higher risk of fetal death and are at six (6) times higher risk of neonatal death. They are more likely to go into labor early as well. Low birth weight and preterm births are leading causes of neonatal morbidity and mortality. Once a child is born, the effects of exposure to prenatal interpersonal violence linger on in a myriad of ways and can affect the child throughout the lifespan. Research has shown that infants exposed to prenatal interpersonal violence may experience various developmental delays, excessive separation anxiety, sleep disturbances, failure to thrive (FTT), and increased risk of physical injury (either directly by the abuser or being caught in the crossfire of abuse to the mother). A baby has increased risk of having trouble nursing or taking a bottle, may be harder to comfort/soothe, and is at higher risk of being sexually abused. Even when the mother leaves the violent situation, the child may continue to exhibit post-traumatic symptoms into other phases of their childhood and adolescence3
There is hope for those who have experienced interpersonal violence and their children. The lower amount of maternal exposure to IPV, the more likely the child will demonstrate better ability to adapt. Children who demonstrate resilience after being exposed to violence are often the children of mothers who model effective coping skills and instill a “sense of security and confidence to their children”4. These children experience at least one positive parental relationship, effective parenting from a parent when that parent is under stress and tend to have extended family/support networks available to them5. Additionally, there are resources in our local communities that can help pregnant women, mothers, and others who are experiencing interpersonal violence. If you need immediate help, call 9-1-1. For anonymous, confidential help 24/7, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY).
1Holmes, M. R. & Yung, J. (2019). Prenatal Exposure to Domestic Violence: Summary of Key Research Findings. Case Western Reserve University. Cleveland, OH. Available from: https://case.edu/socialwork/tr...19-04/PrenatalDV.pdf
2Michigan State University. "Domestic abuse may affect children in womb." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 December 2014. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/12/141216100628.htm.
3University of California, San Francisco. “Patient Education: Domestic Violence and Pregnancy.” 2020-2021. https://www.ucsfhealth.org/edu...olence-and-pregnancy.
4 Webb, R. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study: Implications for Mothers’ & Children’s Exposure to Domestic Violence. National Association of Social Workers Spring Practice Perspectives, May 2013. Available from: