All babies are born into the world helpless and vulnerable to the threats posed by the world around them. During a baby's first few months of life, their tiny bodies have to adjust from womb to world. Their cardiovascular and digestive systems have to learn to function independently, after relying on their mother's body to do all the work during pregnancy. Babies are born completely helpless and rely entirely on the adults that care for them to keep them safe, fed, clean, healthy and alive.
When a baby is born into a consistent, loving, stable, supportive family environment, it allows for the development of healthy neural (brain) networks in early infancy. Babies born into families experiencing domestic abuse, however, are exceptionally vulnerable to the transition into the world, challenges of survival and are at risk of developing unhealthy neural networks and subsequent biological & physiological disruptions, as a result of exposure to trauma.
Studies show a direct correlation between a baby's early environment and their mental, physical & emotional health in later life.
A 2006 study by UNICEF found that at least 275million children worldwide are exposed to violence in their homes each year. In the UK, approximately 240,000-963,000 children each year are exposed to domestic violence at home, many of whom were babies.
Britain has one of the world's highest figures for children exposed to domestic abuse in a first-world country.
The Impact of Domestic Abuse on Babies
A baby's experiences during early development has lifelong consequences for their physical and mental health. The environment we create for our babies and the relationships we offer them, lay the foundations for their development potential and their emerging personalities. Research tells us that when a baby is raised in a supportive, loving, consistently safe environment with routine and stability, they're more likely to develop well-functioning brain circuitry that supports optimal development. If a baby feels repeatedly threatened or unsafe over long periods of time, they start to develop coping behaviours as a natural, physiological stress response. This can have a lasting impact on their development and limit their ability to self-regulate their emotions and behaviour during childhood.
A baby's early environment is so important, researchers now believe a number of chronic adult illnesses have their origins in early childhood.
A baby's home environment is integral to their growth, it influences how biological & physiological systems grow, as well as the formation of networks in baby's brain. A responsive, stable environment is essential to healthy development in babies. A secure, loving home with supportive relationships provide the ideal conditions for a baby to develop strong resilience & a well-regulated stress response.
Babies exposed to violence or threats at home, experience an enormous load on their stress response systems. Repeated exposure to these stressors causes an increased load on baby's underdeveloped stress response. Over time, as the burden becomes too great, it causes disruption to developing systems in baby's body. This leads to altered brain networks, biological & physiological systems, including cardiovascular function, immune response, learning capacity & emotion/behaviour regulation.
Abuse, neglect, exposure to traumatic incidents and other risk factors of family violence, including mother's depression enormously impacts a baby's development. Studies show that the more adversity a baby experiences, the more likely they are to develop social, emotional and cognitive difficulties in childhood.
We now know that even in the womb, babies can suffer toxic effects of domestic abuse, when cortisol is transferred from mum to baby's bloodstream via the umbilical cord, with lasting Psychological effects (Perry, 2001). During pregnancy, a mother’s physical and emotional distress has been found to have a direct impact on her developing baby (Jordan & Sketchley, 2009) and research also shows that assault on pregnant women can cause miscarriage, premature birth, physical injury or disability to her unborn baby (McGee 2000, cleaver et al, 1999).
When domestic abuse occurs after birth, babies are at risk of suffering Psychological trauma from witnessing verbal, physical or sexual abuse of their mother, combined with the instability and fear of an abusive second parent. Domestic abuse leaves new mothers consistently stressed and fearful, rendering both parents unable to fully meet their baby's needs for safety and survival and damaging the parent-child relationship.
Domestic abuse affects a mothers’ ability to care for her baby due to stress, fear, distress, anger, lack of support, reduced mobility and finances. Toxic stress and complex trauma in babies, resulting from exposure to abuse through living in a perpetual state of hyper-vigilance can cause the formation of maladaptive neural networks in baby’s developing brain. Subtle neurological symptoms emerge along with the complex physiological effects of stress on baby’s immune system, which can trigger autoimmune responses and psychological distress.
How Does This Happen?
We all know how delicate babies are. Healthy infant development can be easily derailed by repeated exposure to trauma. This triggers the long-term activation of their stress response systems with lasting effects on learning, behaviour and health. When we're threatened, our bodies prepare us to respond, to keep us safe. Our heart rate increases, blood pressure is raised and the stress hormone Cortisol floods our bloodstream. This is known as the fight or flight response. When a baby's stress response is activated in a safe, supportive environment, these automatic physiological responses are minimal and return to baseline shortly after they've been activated. This contributes to the healthy development of baby's stress response system. However, if a baby's stress response is activated for a long time without the safety net of a supportive relationship, baby can suffer damaged or weakened systems and brain networks, which can be lifelong.
The stress response is a dangerous state for a vulnerable baby's body to be in for long periods. It occurs when baby experiences intense or frequent exposure to trauma without adequate support from a caregiver. In households experiencing domestic abuse, babies are highly vulnerable when their primary caregiver is unable to offer them protection and provide stable, responsive care, as a result of the abuse they are suffering. Prolonged activation of the stress response can cause disruption to baby's brain networks (neural pathways) as well as physiological & biological systems that are highly vulnerable in their early stages of development. Research tells us that without a supportive parent-child relationship to act as a buffer and limit the damaging effects of trauma, there's a greater likelihood of baby developing coping mechanisms that increase the risk of stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, developmental delays, physical health problems including heart disease, diabetes, substance abuse and depression.
Chronic, unhealthy stress (as opposed to healthy stress like learning to share) creates specific changes in a baby's biology, which increases the likelihood of difficulties in later life. Constant activation of the stress response overloads a baby's developing systems and this leads to weaker neural connections in areas of the brain responsible for learning and reasoning.
Significant adversity can disrupt the early development of a baby's delicate brain, biological & physiological systems. Excessive or long-term exposure to trauma in infancy can overload a baby's biological systems. This diverts energy away from developing healthy systems and brain networks, in order to activate the fight or flight response to survive the trauma. If the threat is too intense or goes on for too long, the overload can trigger breakdowns in biological and physiological systems that undermine baby's health.
If a baby's world is a dangerous place, they develop coping mechanisms to protect them from frequent threat, wiring their brain to expect adversity, giving them a shorter fuse. A baby's brain is formed during their early development in the womb and during their first few years of life. The networks and pathways that develop in a baby's brain are shaped by their early experiences and are highly susceptible to change as a result of trauma during infancy.
The most susceptible brain regions in infancy are; emotion regulation, memory systems (remembering the location of an object) & executive function (focused attention, impulse control).
Following a traumatic event (activation of the fight or flight response) these systems need to recover and re-balance. If they don't, because the stress is severe, long-lasting or there's no supportive relationship to help them cope, baby's brain can get stuck in high alert. A one-off stressful event will not cause lasting damage to a baby's development. However, long-term, repeated, intense stress can.
During periods of extreme stress, a baby's body responds in these ways:
-heart rate increases & baby breathes faster = allowing more oxygen to brain and muscles
-baby's immune systems become activated, preparing to fight against wounds and infections
-metabolic systems activates, flooding more energy to fuel cells, tissues and organs.
When these happen repeatedly or over long periods, baby's brain responds by altering it's chemistry and structure to help keep baby safe.
How to Protect Babies from the Effects of Domestic Abuse
Repeated trauma can alter a baby's neurological & biological makeup, but it's important we understand that adversity does not cause brain damage or irreversible change to a baby's brain. Changes that occur in a baby's brain as a result of even the most severe trauma, can be reversed in the right conditions.
A socially nurturing environment can counteract the effects of toxic stress and trauma in babies.
The most effective way to protect babies from the effects of domestic abuse is to remove baby from the abusive environment. Each year in the UK, thousands of babies are born to mothers living in refuges and women's shelters. Thousands more babies are taken into refuge with their mothers after fleeing domestic abuse. As research shows that babies are affected by domestic abuse in pregnancy, we know that all babies in refuges are highly vulnerable following their exposure to trauma, but there are a number of ways parents can help protect these babies.
The most effective prevention is to reduce babies' exposure to extremely stressful conditions arising from domestic abuse in the home. The risk factors to babies range from exposure to abuse range from witnessing violent outbursts and physical abuse, to neglect, caregiver mental illness/substance abuse and caregiver depression. Intervention programmes that provide support to mothers suffering domestic abuse can help to limit the impact of abuse on babies, by supporting the mother and therefore enabling her to provide a greater level of care to her baby. A stable, loving, supportive relationship with their mother acts as a buffer and provides relief for baby when trying to cope with overwhelming stress. Research shows that even under stressful conditions, supportive, responsive relationships with caring caring adults as early in life as possible can prevent or reverse the damaging effects of the toxic stress response.
The key to preventing lasting damage as a result of exposure to trauma, is managing the stress response effects on baby's body. Removing baby from the abusive environment limits their exposure to abuse, in turn limiting the toxic stress load on their developing systems. Then mothers are in a position to manage baby's stress response through nurturing, responsive relationships.
Infants exposed to trauma can overcome trauma through consistent, supportive love from their mother, or another supportive adult. This nurturing relationship helps to reverse the formation of maladaptive neural networks and prevents more from forming.
Research shows that babies who are consistently held, carried, cuddled, breastfed and who sleep in close proximity to their mother, develop into well-balanced, compassionate and cooperative children. A child’s early environment determines their beliefs about themselves and life, their emerging capacity for compassion, empathy and love. Continued exposure to trauma inhibits a baby's natural development and suffering domestic abuse impacts a mother’s ability to nurture her baby fully, as a result of chronic stress, emotional wounding and environmental stressors that come with intimate partner abuse.
Early experiences affect the development of a baby's brain architecture, which provides the foundation for all future learning, behaviour and health. Adverse experiences early in life can impair brain architecture, but brains are built over time and are malleable, meaning we can alter the development of complex neural pathways, with interventions. Responsive care-giving helps the brain develop as expected, supporting healthy learning and behaviour in later childhood. Emotional well-being is vital to providing a string foundation for emerging cognitive abilities, impacting emotional & physical health, social skills & cognitive-linguistic capacities that emerge in the early years. While toxic stress weakens the architecture of baby's developing brain, with supportive relationships, a baby's neural connections can form n a healthy way, limiting the impact of exposure to abuse and resulting toxic stress. Babies are building neural connections at an astonishing rate & these connections lay the foundation for success throughout their lives - created & strengthened by interaction with attentive caregivers.
Slight adjustments in the mother-baby relationship will protect babies from the effects of trauma once they've relocated to a women's shelter, to correct the maladaptive brain networks that have formed as a result of the trauma and to build resilience in babies;
1. Responsiveness (showing the baby they're important, their needs are worthy of being met)
2. Give the child a sense of control over their environment (providing safety and flexibility to play and make simple choices without fear)
Resilience is built in the context of supportive relationships. Early intervention can impact the future of baby’s developmental potential because healthy development requires protection as well as enrichment. Women's shelters help support this by providing;
-A well-regulated environment
-Relieve the burden on mothers (babies grow out of the context of those relationships)
-Support the adults caring for babies to change their own lives
-Increase mother's ability to focus/set goals/regulate self-assessment
Babies in highly threatening environment experience difficulties with the development of their brain, but it;s not irreversible. While it is possible to change baby's maladaptive brain systems later in life, it tales more energy and more time as they get older. A child’s environment can put unusual stress on their ability to learn. So much development takes place during the early period and early environment & relationships play a huge role in development. Toxic stress interferes with the development of baby’s brain. It triggers the release of cortisol, which interferes neural growth. Neuroplasticity, the process of changing brain wiring, is easier and more effective earlier in life. As with all aspects of development, early intervention always provides a better outcome.
The most important time in a baby’s life is always now and the only time we can make a change is now because what happens early on in a baby's life sets the stage for what comes later. and the key to supporting a baby's development is to get to know your baby and become responsive to their needs.
Babies can be protected from the effects of domestic abuse and better supported in healing.
1. Babies need a safe and secure home environment.
Every baby is born with the right to grow up in an environment that’s safe from harm and the toxic effects of abuse. For healthy development, babies should feel that they're protected, loved and safe, but they also need to feel that the people they love are protected and safe. Violence in the home and between parents, impacts a baby’s right to feel safe and secure in the world.
2. Babies need to know there are adults who support and care for them consistently.
When parents recognise the needs of their babies and respond to them accordingly, provide the foundation for healthy cognitive, emotional and psychological development.. Domestic abuse impacts a mothers’ ability to provide this care through a close, dependable relationship that provides a stable foundation on which her baby’s sense of self develops.
3. Babies need routine and stability.
Both routine and stability are vital for mother and baby’s well-being and for baby’s early development. This is especially true after traumatic events and exposure to abuse. A sense of safety is critical for a developing baby’s cognitive and psychological stability. Knowing what to expect through daily routine plays a key role in the formation of a baby’s experience of the world and ability to interpret incoming stimuli. By leaving the abusive home, mother removes uncertainty, fear, inconsistency and disruption through abusive outbursts, enabling baby to develop healthy neural networks in an environment of predictability and routine.
4. Babies need support that meets their need for emotional development.
When a mother takes into account the needs of her baby, she helps to mitigate the effects of trauma. Providing intervention to new mothers in refuge has a positive impact on baby, who benefits particularly when mum is taught to support baby while coping with the stress and trauma from the abuse.
5. Baby needs mum to be supported to leave the abusive partner safely
By leaving the abusive household, mum provides a safe space for baby to develop a healthy sense of self and is able to meet baby’s needs during the early period of development. The biggest risk factor for experiencing abusive relationships as an adult, is growing up in a home where adults abuse each other. By removing baby from the abusive home, mothers are limiting baby’s chances of being abused as an adult, as well as limiting the potential for baby to develop preventable PTSD through exposure to chronic stress.
Exposure to abuse causes neurophysiological effects in children of violent parents. As a result they become hyper-vigilant, leaving their systems in a state of high alert prepared for fight/attacks which causes ongoing stress and effects baby’s mental and physical health.
The Role of Women's Shelters
To create a healthy environment for early development, babies need attentive interaction with their mother, but mum also needs to take care of herself and have her needs met, in order to meet her baby's needs. In periods of crisis, the only way to meet the needs of a baby is to ensure the adults taking care of them also have their needs met. Stress becomes unmanageable when the stress response doesn't return to normal. It then becomes toxic stress, as a result of trauma not subsiding (in domestic abuse, where the abuse is ongoing).
Babies don't have the capacity to regulate and manage their own stress. They rely on their carers to soothe and comfort them, which brings their heart rate down and encourages their baseline return to normal. Therefore, it's the adults caring for a baby who determine how babies manage toxic stress. To do this they should;
1. Provide a sense of safety for baby.
In order to do this, baby's mother must also feel safe. Women's shelters play a key role in providing a sanctuary for women to raise their babies safe from harm.
2. Help baby develop a sense of how to manage stress.
By modelling good stress-management themselves, mothers help babies to build the skills that develop resilience in their babies.
The things an adult needs to feel safe in crisis are the same things a baby needs to feel safe - emotionally and socially. We need a sense of community, stability, contact with others, emotional support and understanding. These all have a positive physiological effect, helping to bring the heart rate down, blood pressure to stabilise and muscles to relax. In adults and babies, deep breathing, dancing, gentle music, and play help to reduce stress. Free play in a safe environment is crucial to a baby's development because it's how babies' brains build strong circuits for resilience.
After being exposed to domestic abuse in the home, a baby's support needs stemming from the trauma, are separate from their basic needs. These invisible emotional and psychological wounds can be crippling to a vulnerable baby and block the stress response from returning to normal.
When high levels of Cortisol flood a baby's bloodstream, the effects can be toxic. Repeated exposure to trauma can lead to baby suffering from chronic anxiety, difficulty regulating emotions and low self esteem and psychological difficulties in later life. To counter these effects, a consistently loving, supportive relationship with a responsive mother in a stable home environment are vital. Women's shelters provide the stability and space for women fleeing domestic abuse, to develop these relationships with their babies, in an environment that limits the impact of exposure to abuse.
How we help
Our grants help to provide counselling for mothers and buy baby essentials like cribs and prams. Our care packs help support mothers to build responsive, loving relationships with their babies, after they've left the abusive home. We understand that every baby is unique, so their needs will be too. We help new mothers in refuge to achieve the best possible outcomes for a brighter future.
Babies exposed to abuse, whether in the womb or after birth, have a significantly higher likelihood of developing psycho-social, developmental and behavioural difficulties in childhood. With intervention techniques, we can help new mothers in refuge to mitigate the effects of trauma on their babies and implement positive change to infants’ developing brains.
Every interaction and experience a baby has, helps to shape their brain. In every moment, babies are absorbing information from the outside world which triggers the activation of brain cells which then enable neighbouring cells to activate. Which cells become active depends on which experiences baby is exposed to. Our programmes help new mothers in refuge to understand their babies' development and the effects of trauma on their development. Through our programmes, we help mothers to understand how to meet their babies' needs after abuse and to use parenting techniques that work to limit the impact abuse has had on their baby. By encouraging mothers to provide loving, attentive support to their babies after abuse, we can help to implement life-changing interventions to vulnerable babies.
Studies show that women who have left their abuser and moved out of the shared house, are better able to provide the responsive parenting that baby needs and are more confident about their parenting ability. On self-measured parenting skills women in refuge rate themselves higher at parenting than women who were currently experiencing abuse (Casanueva et al, 2008).
Mental health problems may emerge as a consequence of suffering long-term abuse while raising a child.
We help support mothers as they re-focus on meeting their babies' needs and providing interventions, to counteract the negative effects of their babies' exposure to abuse. As babies have fewer options for self defense than adults, they have to communicate through cries, facial expressions and body language and rely on others to keep them safe, move them out of harm's way and into safety.
Babies born into abusive households are highly vulnerable to the effects of toxic stress, but when their mother moves them out of the abusive home,, removing them from harm, she finds new opportunity to provide care and stability going forward. Our support programmes empower new and expectant mothers in women’s shelters with the knowledge that simple intervention techniques, including loving care, can have a huge impact on their baby’s cognitive and emotional development.
Aside from our grants and care packs, at The Aidie Trust, we:
-Work to research and understand the impact of exposure to violence and abuse on babies.
-Understand the science of infant brain development and the impact of trauma.
-Raise awareness of the impact of domestic abuse on babies.
-Provide interventions that support babies born to mothers escaping abuse.
-Understand how unborn babies are impacted by violence & abuse towards their mothers.
-Assess the specific needs of children as complimentary to other Domestic Violence support services.
-Take a strengths-based approach to consider what mothers can do to encourage healthy development in their babies
-Help mothers recognise toxic stress, develop stress management skills to help their baby to develop healthily
-Support mothers to use their understanding of infant brain development to inform parenting style and create a safe, strong bond between her and her baby
Safe Mum Safe Baby
Our genuine concern for babies in women's shelters inspired us to launch The Aidie Trust, offering dedicated services to meet the needs of babies born into abusive families. Knowing that pregnant women who’ve experienced domestic abuse are 40% more likely to have a premature birth and require long hospital stays, with a higher chance of complications, we also work to raise awareness for early intervention and help newborns get a healthy start in life.
Our support programmes & care packs, in partnership with aidie London & women's shelters across the UK, help new and expectant mothers whose lives have been affected by domestic abuse, provide their babies with a bright, safe future.
Babies born in refuge can be as healthy as any baby.
Seffie Wells, MSc; Founder, The Aidie Trust