Maternal witness to intimate partner violence during childhood and prenatal family functioning alter newborn cortisol reactivity.Stress. 2019 03; 22(2):190-199.S
Witnessing intimate partner violence (IPV) during childhood is a risk factor for mental health problems across the lifespan. Less is known about the intergenerational consequences of witnessing IPV, and if the current family climate buffers intergenerational effects of witnessing violence. The mother's experience of witnessing IPV against her own mother during childhood, prenatal family dysfunction, and prenatal perceived stress were examined as predictors of offspring cortisol in the first month of life (N = 218 mother-infant dyads). Mothers reported on witnessing IPV in their childhoods, prenatal family dysfunction, and prenatal perceived stress in pregnancy. At 2 days and again at 1 month postpartum, infants engaged in a neurobehavioral exam to assess infant cortisol reactivity. Infants whose mothers witnessed IPV in childhood exhibited alterations in their baseline cortisol and their cortisol reactivity at 1 month of age, whereas family dysfunction during pregnancy was associated with baseline cortisol and cortisol reactivity at 2 days of age. Prenatal perceived stress was not associated with infant cortisol at 2 days or 1 month. Prenatal family dysfunction and perceived stress did not moderate effects of the mother's experience of witnessing IPV. Results support the view that maternal experiences in childhood and during pregnancy exert intergenerational effects on the HPA stress response system.