Featured Research

Childhood trauma linked to pregnancy complications

8 August 2023

A study led by Life Course Centre researchers at the University of Queensland has found women who have experienced maltreatment, domestic violence or household substance abuse as children have a higher risk of complications during pregnancy.

Associate Professor Abdullah Mamun from UQ’s Poche Centre for Indigenous Health, led a project which analysed 21 existing studies on the impact of childhood trauma, to understand a possible link to complications during pregnancy.

“We found women who had adverse childhood experiences had a 37 per cent higher risk of pregnancy complications,” Dr Mamun said.

“These included diabetes during pregnancy, high blood pressure, excessive weight gain, anxiety and depression. These women were also 31 per cent more likely to have an adverse pregnancy outcome such as a premature birth or low birth weight.”

The research also found women with adverse childhood experiences had an increased risk of substance use, physical inactivity and poor diet. “This highlights the long-term effects of adverse childhood experiences and the importance of preventing these to reduce both immediate and intergenerational impacts,” Dr Mamun said.

While the profound impact of childhood trauma on adult mental health is well documented, the researchers said little has been known about its effect on pregnancy.

“There are numerous reasons explaining the relationship between child maltreatment, physical abuse and household substance abuse and adverse pregnancy outcomes,” Dr Mamun said. “Those experiences can alter the way the brain functions including things like our stress-signalling pathways, and even our immune system function.”

Dr Mamun said screening for adverse childhood experiences and providing trauma-informed care may be a viable option to prevent pregnancy complications.

“Current trauma-informed care should also be examined to assess whether it improves clinical outcomes for mothers and their children,” Dr Mamun said. “This is clearly an important area of research, with the negative effects of childhood trauma being felt well into adulthood, and across generations.”

The researchers highlighted further research was needed in the field, as there were limitations to the data with most of the studies included from high-income western countries. Some of the studies used different screening tools and cut-off values, and researchers also were not able to analyse results by specific types of childhood experience.

This study was supported by the Life Course Centre and was led by Life Course Centre Chief Investigator Associate Professor Abdullah Mamun. Co-authors included fellow Life Course Centre Chief Investigator Professor Karen Thorpe from UQ’s Queensland Brain Institute.

(image by Amr Taha™ on Unsplash)

To cite:

Mamun, A., Biswas, T., Scott, J., et al (2023). Adverse childhood experiences, the risk of pregnancy complications and adverse pregnancy outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Open 2023;13:e063826. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2022-063826