MAC Research Spotlight: Impact of Maternal Stress and Violence on Early Childhood Development Across Generations

MAC would like to highlight some recently published reports from our team of faculty affiliates and senior researchers. These studies highlighted have a similar focus on early childhood development with impacts from maternal stress and early childhood violence.

As seen in our Faculty Spotlight, Dr. Sarah Gray, a clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychology at Tulane University, conducts research in child and developmental psychopathology and early life stress and trauma. In 2017 Dr. Gray and co-authors published a report in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, entitled Thinking Across Generations: Unique Contributions of Maternal Early Life and Prenatal Stress to Infant Physiology. This work received the 2018 Norbert and Charlotte Rieger Award for Scientific Achievement from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

In the study, the authors examined the effects of maternal exposure to prenatal stress and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on infant respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), an important biomarker for infant self-regulation that has been linked to mental and physical health outcomes later in life. The study found that high incidences of maternal ACEs were associated with lower infant RSA, and there was an association of maternal prenatal stress with lower infant RSA in girls but higher RSA in boys. Additionally, this study found that maternal prenatal stress was more associated with a lowered infant’s ability to recover from a stressful event. The study concluded that an infant’s RSA is affected by maternal life events and stressors, especially maternal ACEs predicting a lower RSA in infants and maternal prenatal stress predicting a lowered ability for infants to recover from stressful events. Reducing stress and adverse events among pregnant women and those planning to become pregnant may have a direct impact on the physical and mental health outcomes across generations.

In another 2017 report, Kyle Esteves and co-authors including Dr. Gray and MAC’s Director Dr. Katherine Theall and wrote about the Impact of Physical Abuse on Internalizing Behavior Across Generations. The focus of this study was to explore the generational impact of maternal exposure to physical maltreatment on parenting practices, depression, and the child’s exposure to stressful life events, based on an assumption of internalization of symptoms from past adverse exposures in the mother. Mothers were interviewed and asked to report exposure to past physical maltreatment, parenting practices, depressive symptoms, their children’s exposure to stressful life events, and their children’s behaviors. The data collected showed a significant association between maternal childhood exposure to physical maltreatment and their child’s behavior reflecting internalization of symptoms in their parenting. The study concludes that maternal physical maltreatment in childhood has an impact on their child’s behavior.