Google+ Authentic Parenting: Effects of Pre-Birth Trauma on the Unborn Child

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Effects of Pre-Birth Trauma on the Unborn Child

On a recent outing with my 6 year old grand-daughter we went to the Science Museum, an amazingly interactive place which encourages learning, exploration, experimentation and fun! We came across a ‘walk in womb’ which I was not keen to go in to but my grand-daughter was, she is expecting a new brother or sister soon so she was especially interested.

We stood in a dark cavern shaped space listening to the mother’s heartbeat and the external sounds the baby was hearing. We were gently tossed around by the mother’s movements and it was a surreal experience. We listened as the birth happened to anxious voices and sounds and then the cry of the new born child. It affected us both and we had a lively discussion afterwards and went on our way around the amazing museum. Later that evening I thought back to what we had heard and felt. I was shocked at how clear the voices and sounds had been and began to think of all the babies whose pre-birth experience is one of fear and threat. I have worked with women for many years that have lived with domestic violence and other abuse it made me feel immensely sad for them and their unborn children.

Alarmingly, we are told by, McWilliams & McKiernan 1993 'in 30% of cases of domestic violence the abuse first started during pregnancy' and Taft 2002 'between 4 & 9 women in every 100 are abused during their pregnancies &/or after birth’. So for the babies who survive through to birth what does this mean?

Maternal emotional, as well as physical, messages are transmitted to the feotus. When a mother
how maternal mood influences the feotus
becomes fearful her heart beat alters, which can lead to reduced oxygen flow to the feotus, speeding up its heart rate. On a temporary basis this will be fine as it begins to prepare the baby’s system for the real World. Along with this a frightened or anxious mother experiences a rise in her levels of the stress hormones we all have, which help us to cope with feeling under threat by making us run, fight, freeze, flop or befriend in order to survive. Our bodies are automatically prepared to act to keep us alive and so we get a surge of adrenalin and cortisol to help with this as will the feotus. If a car is hurtling towards us, or we are feeling threatened in anyway, this is our systems survival mechanism.

However, we are not designed to stay on high alert for long periods of time as these important chemicals need to reduce so we can feel calm again or it puts a stress on our brain and body and the same is true for the unborn child. It gets uncomfortable and, as their brain is in the process of developing, it will shape its sensitivity to possible fear or threat and may make it find threat where it does not always exist; hence the baby will have a more reactive brain and be harder to soothe.

Ironically the baby may well then be born into an environment where the parents or carers are less available to them as they are distracted by the domestic abuse, substance misuse, mental illness or violence outside of the home. The baby is likely to be more easily upset yet less responsive to being comforted and may be in a chaotic home where this is not often on offer anyway. Fast forward to 3 years’ time to a young child who finds it hard to play with others and form friendships, who lashes out or withdraws, gets easily overwhelmed by life in general and has dramatic, long lasting outbursts, who struggles to stay focused on much for long, who does not sleep well, this list can be extensive.

The good news is that young children’s brains are much easier to reshape as they can easily create new connections, the older the brain gets the harder this becomes but it does remain as a possibility throughout life. So the sooner the child and non-abusive parent can get away from the source of repetitive fear and stress the better it will be for the child’s future development and mental well-being. Pre-birth is ideal but as it is a time when most women feel especially vulnerable and are hoping a child will improve relations and change an abusive partner it is harder to support change.

Seeking support is vital for all victims of domestic violence and abuse and those close to them.

About the author
Jane has built up a wealth of parenting and early years knowledge throughout her career; as a parenting worker for a domestic violence organisation, a respite foster carer, a child-minder, a children’s practitioner in a family centre and a support worker in a child protection team, whilst also working in and with schools and pre-schools.
Jane is now using this as the basis for the training she delivers on parenting and children affected by trauma and for her bespoke parenting course for thoseimpacted by trauma, either post domestic violence or as adoptive parents , foster or kinship carers.
Jane has also written an early years story book to enable children to explore feelings relating to domestic violence which is to be published early in 2014 by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.



  1. Loved that I found this article. Shared it, hoping it puts some things in perspective for some women that are dear to me. Thank you for writing it.

  2. I loved this article as well, it saddens me for the women and babies who go through that, that museum sounds awesome though where is it located?

  3. I love this article as well, I hope everyone gets a chance to read it. That museum sounds awesome, where is it located?


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