Media reports of women killing their newborn babies always rocket to the top of websites’ most-read lists. The prospect of moms killing newborns is so grotesque it’s as if everyone is wondering the same thing: who are these mad mommies?
Turns out they’re not necessarily the psychotic nut jobs we think they are. Low maternal self-esteem and emotional immaturity are behind many of the killings, according to new research published online in the fetal and neonatal edition of the Archives of Disease in Childhood, a journal of the British Medical Association. (More on Time.com: A Baby is Born, His Mother Dies; Read About It on Facebook)
“The public perception comes from tabloids,” says Anne Tursz, research director at the National Institute for Health and Medical Research in Paris, where the study was based. “The fact is that the international literature on neonaticide is very limited.”
Tursz and researcher Jon Cook looked at case records from 26 French courts that involved the death of a child within the first day of life between 1996 and 2000. The cases had come to trial by 2007 and included maternal psychiatric assessments, which Tursz and Cook used to develop a profile of the sort of woman who commits neonaticide, killing her newborn within 24 hours of birth.
The stereotype is that of a young, poor, unemployed, single woman. Yet when the researchers analyzed the 17 court cases in which the women had been identified, they learned that the average age of women who murdered their babies was 26. None displayed obvious symptoms of mental illness, and none had reported being abused as a child. A third had at least three children already; two-thirds had not used birth control to try to prevent a pregnancy. More than half the women lived with the dead infant’s father, and most were employed. (More on Time.com: In Zahra Baker’s Case, Postpartum Depression Exacted a Heavy Toll)
Not surprisingly, all the women had hidden their pregnancies, and most gave birth in secret, all by themselves. Almost half the women were depressed. Mostly, though, they were scared.
“They were terrified of being left by their husband [or the father],” says Torsz, who points out that although the study focused on French women, there’s no reason why the findings wouldn’t apply to women in other countries, too.
“Feeling very much alone, and for nearly half of them, depressed, [these women] probably did not have complete control over their lives or their sexuality,” write the authors. “Neonaticide thus appears as a solution when an unwanted pregnancy risks creating a family scandal, or the loss of one’s partner or a satisfying lifestyle. (More on Time.com: 10-Year-Old in Spain Is Not the First or Youngest Child Mom)
“Our findings suggest that preventive action, targeting only young, poor, unemployed and single women, or women in pregnancy denial, may not be appropriate,” they add.
Neonaticide thankfully doesn’t happen often, but it actually occurs more frequently than you’d think, according to the researchers, who found that it is five times more common than estimates reflect.
Of the 80 deaths determined to be intentional, the researchers found, 27 — a third — involved babies killed during their first day of life.
The authors noted a “sizeable underestimate” in the official estimates of such killings; while statistics reported neonaticides at 0.39 per 100,000 births for the same regions over the same period, court data indicated a more accurate number was 2.1 per 100,000, or five times higher.