"Domestic Violence and Your Unborn Baby"

by Barbara A. Corry, M.A.

     Domestic violence frequently begins or intensifies during a pregnancy. About 25%-40% of all women who are battered are battered during pregnancy. Moreover, the abuse of pregnant women crosses all socio-economic and cultural lines.

     Pregnancy means change in a relationship. A new baby may be perceived as threatening to a jealous man who will soon have to share his partner's time and attention with the child. In addition, having a child can evoke anger if the batterer resents the added responsibility.

     The pregnancy may represent a threat to a controlling man because each time his mate goes to the doctor, there are more people who might influence her.

     Finally, battering may be triggered later in a pregnancy if an insecure man places undue emphasis on his mate's appearance and begins to dislike his partner's changing body.

     A man who responds to stress, frustration, or anger with violence, may specifically target the source of that stress. A batterer may target the woman's belly for his punches or kicks. A batterer also may choose to hurt a mate, whom he feels has wronged him, by harming the baby.

Some Effects of Battering on You and Your Baby

     The consequences of battering during pregnancy are very serious, indeed. Blows to the abdomen may lead to miscarriages and still births.

     Repeated physical abuse can result in fetal fractures, maternal and fetal hemorrhage, rupture of the uterus, liver, or spleen, premature separation of the placenta, or premature delivery of the fetus.

     Pregnant women in battering relationships have an increased risk of low birth weight. In addition, battered pregnant women are more likely than non-battered women to report drug and alcohol abuse during the pregnancy, thus placing the baby at risk for fetal Alcohol Syndrome or drug addiction.

     Moreover, battering and traumatic shocks to the fetus may occur during the second trimester when the baby's brain is developing and important nerve connections are forming. Further research is needed on the long-term effects on the brain of repeated exposure to violence in utero.

     Finally, access to prenatal care may be hindered by the batterer. Women abused during pregnancy tend to enter prenatal care later.

Some Potential Effects of Abuse to Consider

     If domestic abuse is occurring during pregnancy, prospective parents must consider what their baby is already "taking in" through its senses.

     First, ask yourself, "What can my baby hear?" Perhaps you have heard about people who play foreign language tapes or classical music for their unborn baby? Well, just as an older fetus can hear and respond to familiar voices, or react strongly to different kinds of music, a fetus also can hear the sounds of domestic violence, including loud arguments, screams, threats, shattering glass, and furniture being broken.

     Although researchers have measured, generally, what a fetus hears and when, more research is needed to document the effects of repeated exposure to the sounds of a parent's rages.

     Future research also must study the consequences of exposure to chronic verbal abuse. Verbal battering means frequently criticising, belittling, blaming, shaming, or swearing at the expectant mother. Such behaviors are intended to hurt, frighten, or intimidate the mother. We owe our children nothing less than to understand how verbal violence may affect them.

     Second, ask yourself: "What might my baby feel if it is exposed to violence?" Parents (and researchers) must consider how the mother's physiological reactions to battering will affect the baby. For example:

     What sensations might the baby feel if the mother is being dragged across the room by her hair, and she is screaming from the diaphragm? (Vibrations? Being jostled around?)

     What does the baby experience if the mother is being choked and she is gasping for air?

     How might the baby experience the mother's pain from a broken jaw, fractured arm, or a cracked rib?

     What courses through the baby if the mother "goes cold" with terror when she finds that her partner has destroyed her car or killed her pet?

     What chemical changes may occur in mother and baby if the mother finds her precious heirlooms broken, or her lovingly-tended plants uprooted? How might the baby react to her sadness and humiliation?

     What do you suppose the baby feels if the mother falls down the stairs fleeing from her attacker, or if she is kicked down the stairs by her batterer?

     Finally, ask yourself, "If my sleep is being disrupted frequently by battering episodes, what effect might this have on my baby?" Parents and researchers must consider the following, if the mother's rest is being violated on a regular basis:

     If the mother is often startled awake, is the baby jolted awake, too?

     If the mother is under siege for hours, is the baby at peace?

     Is the violence conditioning a human being who may not be able to be completely at rest, even when sleep and relaxation should come?

     Future research must investigate the long term effects of exposure to violence, including hyperactivity, hypervigilance (increased watchfulness), and post traumatic stress disorder. We must document the extent to which battering episodes may alter the brain, harm the baby's nervous system, or start a pattern of sleeping disorders.

     The adverse effects on the fetus from battering obviously will vary with the frequency, intensity, and duration of the violence. However, based on the medical evidence and anecdotal reports by survivors, the repeated battering of the expectant mother must be considered to be a crime against the future.

About the Author:

Barbara A. Corry, M.A., is a sociologist who has specialized since 1976 in the area of assaults against women.


Posted on April 28th. 2000