Again, sadly enough: Infants exposed to domestic violence have poorer cognitive development

The negative influence of stress on the cognitive development of infants has been shown again and again, and this new study does the same again, sadly enough. Infants coming from homes with domestic violence often go on to have worse academic outcomes in school due to neurodevelopmental lags and a higher risk for a variety of health issues, including gastrointestinal distress, trouble eating and sleeping, as well as stress and illness.

From the press release:

While assessing a pregnant woman with premature labor in 1983, Linda Bullock noticed bruises on the woman. When she asked what happened, the woman told Bullock a refrigerator had fallen on her while cleaning the kitchen.

“Something didn’t seem right, but I didn’t know what to say at the time. I just went on to the next question of the assessment,” said Bullock, now a professor emerita at the University of Missouri Sinclair School of Nursing. “We stopped her labor and sent her home, but I will bet my last dollar I sent her back to an abusive relationship, and it sparked my interest in helping other nurses assist battered women. What we didn’t know at the time was the impact violence had on the baby.”

Bullock helped implement the Domestic Violence Enhanced Perinatal Home Visits (DOVE) program in rural Missouri, which empowered safety planning and reduced domestic violence for hundreds of abused pregnant women. After learning from home health visits that many of the abused women had up to nine different romantic partners during and following pregnancy, Bullock conducted a study to examine the impact of multiple father figures on the cognitive development of the newborn infants.

After administering neurodevelopmental tests during home visits three, six and 12 months after birth, she was surprised to find the infants of women who had only one male partner who abused them had worse cognitive outcomes compared to infants of women with multiple male partners, only some of whom were abusive.

“The findings highlight the variety of ways the multiple father figures may have been helping the mom support her baby, whether it was providing food, housing, childcare or financial benefits,” Bullock said. “For the women with only one partner who abused them, the infant’s father, the father may not have provided any physical or financial support or played an active role in the child’s life. It can be difficult for busy, single moms struggling to make ends meet to provide the toys and stimulation their infants need to reach crucial developmental milestones.”

Bullock added that infants coming from homes with domestic violence often go on to have worse academic outcomes in school due to neurodevelopmental lags and a higher risk for a variety of health issues, including gastrointestinal distress, trouble eating and sleeping, as well as stress and illness.

“When nurses are visiting homes to check in on pregnant women and their developing babies, we want them to be trained in recognizing the warning signs of potential intimate partner violence,” Bullock said. “I still think back to 1983 when I sent that lady back home into a terrible situation, and I am passionate about making sure I can help nurses today not make the same mistake I made.”

Abstract of the study:

Purpose
Exposure to intimate partner violence (IPV) has been associated with adverse infant developmental outcomes; however, the influence of the number of father-figures (abusive vs non-abusive) has on young infants’ risk for neurodevelopmental delays has not been examined.

Procedures
A secondary data analysis was conducted from the Domestic Violence Enhanced Perinatal Home Visits (DOVE) study of abused pregnant women (N = 239) and their infants’ neurodevelopment from baseline through 12-months postpartum.

Results
Although all women reported decreased violence from baseline to 12 months postpartum, there was a significant main effect between baseline IPV scores and infant risk for developmental delay at 12 months (β = .19; p < .05) and a significant interaction between baseline IPV scores and multiple partner categories (β = .89; p < .01). Women in the single abusive partner category demonstrated a negative association between baseline IPV and 12-month infant risk scores (β = −.56; p < .01). Whereas women in the mixed and multiple abusive partner groups demonstrated a positive association between IPV and infant risk scores (β = .32; p < .05).

Conclusion
This study provides evidence that an infant’s neurodevelopment is impacted by exposure to violence in the home. Additional research is needed to examine the full impact, not only the effects of single and/or abusive partners on child development, but also the possible effect of multiple non-abusive partners on development.

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