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Photo courtesy Sheri Madigan

Trauma can be passed down from mothers to children, finds U of C researcher

By Garrett Wachoski-Dark, July 27 2017 —

A University of Calgary researcher has shown that adverse childhood experiences can negatively affect a mother’s health during pregnancy, as well as the health of their child.

In a paper published in the August edition of the Journal of Pediatrics, Dr. Sheri Madigan and colleagues found that clusters of four or more adverse childhood experiences in a mother’s life lead to more health risks during pregnancy. They also found that such risks are a detriment to the child’s early physical and emotional health.

In previous medical studies, only isolated cases of adversity were examined. Madigan explained that these stand-alone cases are not necessarily representative of the mother’s childhood.

“We wanted to look at the clustering of risk because although there are some individuals who experience one or two adversities, most often those adversities cluster together,” Madigan said. “So if you witness domestic violence between your parents, you’re also more likely to have suffered from physical and emotional abuse.”

This accumulation of adverse childhood experiences doubled the risk for biomedical problems during pregnancy, such as gestational diabetes or low birth weight. Madigan’s research also found a sharp increase in psychosocial risk among the children of these pregnancies.

“Psychosocial risks are things that occur in the child’s environment — poverty, maternal depression, witnessing marital conflict,” Madigan said. “These are things that operate in that environment that can compromise the child in terms of the mom’s capacity to attune to the child.”

Madigan’s study showed that when a pregnant mother experiences too many biomedical risks, their child’s physical health can be affected as a result. It also demonstrated that an accumulation of psychosocial risks after birth negatively impacts the child’s emotional and mental health.

“These psychosocial risks can really compromise child development because they draw on the mom’s resources, which takes away her time and energy to give toward her own child,” Madigan said. “With maternal depression you can see that. If you’re depressed then you don’t have a lot of time, energy and enthusiasm for child care. You are struggling with your own mental health issues and that can absorb your time and energy.”

A child whose development is affected by these risks may then start their own family and their own adversity could restart the cycle of risk and trauma for the next generation. Madigan’s research investigated ways to break this cycle.

“Buffers we have looked at have been any sort of social support — partners, friends, mental health professionals,” she said.

Madigan noted that discussing these issues is becoming easier as mental health becomes less stigmatized. She also encourages those suffering from generational trauma to use resources such as the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative.

“Just because you had early adversity doesn’t mean you are going to have compromised health,” Madigan said. “There is reason to hope that we can continue to grow and build our primary care and the way that we work with patients to improve children’s outcomes. That is where we start to break those generational continuities.”


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