November 13, 2018
Mother holding sad daughter
Health News

Childhood Trauma May Affect the Next Generation, Too

by Keng Lam, MD  

We’ve previously reported on the effect that childhood trauma can have on a person’s health later in their life. Now there is evidence that such trauma can also affect the health of children of people who have been traumatized.

In a study published in April 2018 in Pediatrics, investigators recruited 311 mother-baby pairs and 122 father-baby pairs at a pediatric clinic in Oregon. The parents were asked during the child’s 4-month well-care visit to fill out a survey that assessed their (the parent’s) exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), ranging from physical or sexual abuse to growing up in a divorced family. The researchers then compared the parents’ self-reported ACEs with their children’s chance of exhibiting a suspected developmental delay, such as a problem with motor skills, communication, social skills, or problem-solving, at age 2.

They found that for each additional ACE reported by the mother, there was an 18 percent increase in the risk of a suspected developmental delay in their young child. (The researchers observed a similar trend for children of traumatized fathers, but the sample size was too small to draw conclusions.) And children of mothers who reported three or more ACEs were more than twice as likely to have a suspected delay as children whose mothers reported fewer than three ACEs. A higher number of maternal ACEs also significantly increased the child’s chance of having suspected delays across multiple domains (e.g., motor, social, communication) rather than just a single domain.

A study published in the same journal in March 2018 also supports the relationship between ACEs and adverse outcomes in the subsequent generation. The researchers followed a group of nearly 2,000 pregnant women in Canada, most of them high-income and highly educated, from 2008 to 2010. The women completed questionnaires assessing their adverse experiences in childhood as well as their exposure to stressful events during pregnancy. The study authors found that both maternal ACEs and maternal stress during pregnancy were associated with negative developmental outcomes in infanthood.

Bottom line: Taken together, these two studies open more doors for discussion on when and how to best screen pregnant or new mothers for ACEs, as well as what types of intervention would be most effective to minimize the effect of these traumatic experiences on the next generation. At the very least, it seems prudent for pediatricians to seek out this information from all new mothers entering the practice so that it can be included in the infant’s chart. This may be particularly important if it turns out that multiple ACEs were present.