Increasingly, a whole body of research indicates what happens early in childhood — even in utero — affects the rest of your life. Now, a new study reinforces that perspective, finding that women who were abused as children stand a greater chance of delivering low-birthweight babies.
Amelia Gavin, an assistant professor in the University of Washington’s School of Social Work, was curious why rates of preterm delivery and low birthweight have largely increased since 1990, despite advances in obstetric care. Low birthweight — defined as less than 5.5 lbs. — can lead to an increased risk of death as an infant and other eventual health complications, including diabetes. About 8% of U.S. babies are underweight when they’re born, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. (More on Time.com: Sad Mothers Give Birth to Smaller Babies, Study Finds)
Plumbing a database maintained by colleagues that has followed 136 women who are now mothers since childhood, Gavin focused on mothers who gave birth after age 18. She was able to observe a correlation between abuse — physical, sexual or emotional — before age 10 and lower birth weight when the women had babies of their own, according to research published online this month in in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Childhood poverty and substance use — though not necessarily abuse — during high school and pregnancy also factored into the equation; women abused as children tended to be more likely to use drugs and alcohol in high school and smoke and drink while pregnant. (More on Time.com: Study: Smoking During Pregnancy May Result in Uncoordinated Kids)
It’s possible that drug use, along with drinking and smoking, resulted in lower birth weights. “In pregnancy, there are some behaviors women shouldn’t do like smoking or drinking large amounts, but some women do it,” says Gavin. “This may be a way of identifying women who are more likely to use substances during pregnancy.”
The correlation between lower birth weights and childhood abuse could help obstetricians identify women who may be more likely to drink and use drugs during pregnancy. Nurses might add in a question about past abuse during a woman’s initial prenatal visit, realizing that women who experience a traumatic event in childhood may turn to substance use as a way to help them deal with their past. (More on Time.com: What Depresses Moms-to-Be the Most? Their Unsupportive Partners)
It’s an example of thinking more holistically about women’s health. “You can’t separate a woman from her life experiences even though she’s pregnant,” says Gavin. “Prenatal care is just an extension of care she has received throughout her whole life. We have to start in a girl’s life when she’s very young, providing her with comprehensive health care so we’re not trying to fix everything during the nine-month period she’s pregnant.”