Past research has indicated that when an infant is exposed to intimate partner violence (IPV) from a parent, they often show poorer development and adverse outcomes later in life. New research has discovered that if a mother stays with a single abusive partner during their infant’s development, the baby is more likely to experience neurological development issues than if the mother has multiple partners, even if some of those are abusive.
The lead researcher, Linda Bullock, suggests that the influence of just some positive father figures may help reduce the damage from IPV, while just a single abusive figure can wreak havoc on the development of a child. The study was published in the Maternal Child Health Journal.
“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 in a statement.
“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.”
To carry out the research, Bullock and colleagues took a sample of 239 abused pregnant women from the Domestic Violence Enhanced Perinatal Home Visits (DOVE) study, which was also conducted by herself after implementing the DOVE program in Missouri. The researchers followed the women’s infants for 12 months after birth, measuring their risks of neurodevelopmental delay and looking for any associations between that and their mothers’ IPV scores. They also looked at any links between neurodevelopmental delay and the number of partners the mother had during the 12 months.
They discovered that all women showed a decrease in violence following birth, but that there was a strong risk of developmental delay as IPV scores increased. Alongside that, the children of those that had a single, abusive partner throughout pregnancy and the following 12 months showed a higher risk of developmental delays, while those with multiple partners had a lower risk.
The authors of the paper propose a number of reasons for this. Firstly, it is likely that fathers are more violent towards their partners during pregnancy, exposing the fetus to more violence and affecting their development while still in the womb through epigenetic changes. Another reason may be that the mothers may have feared for custody of their child with just one partner, making them less likely to seek help. Finally, the mothers may be more likely to isolate themselves with a single partner, cutting them off from friends and family that may help alleviate the violence.
Children exposed to domestic violence have significantly worse outcomes later in life, including school and behavior scores, illnesses, and stress. It is hugely important that mothers in these situations are helped in the best way possible, to prevent long-term damage to not just the mother, but the child too.