Women who experience domestic violence while pregnant are twice as likely to give birth to a premature baby or a baby with low birth weight, according to a new study.
Researchers from the University of Iowa performed a meta-analysis on 50 studies that looked at the effects of domestic violence on pregnancy, evaluating data from over 5 million women in 17 countries.
Their report, published in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, offers the latest evidence that domestic violence during pregnancy is associated with adverse birth outcomes.
"Domestic violence by a partner or ex-partner is of particular concern during pregnancy when not one, but two lives are at risk," Audrey Saftlas, the study's lead author and a professor of epidemiology at the University of Iowa, said in a press release.
"Although rates of domestic violence differ across the world, the detrimental effects of abuse on pregnant women are very clear and we must continue to establish effective interventions globally in order to prevent violence and to support women who report abuse."
The CDC estimates that one in four women in the U.S. will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Around three women a day are killed by intimate partners.
Saftlas told The Huffington Post that domestic violence can affect a growing fetus in a number of ways. Most obviously, if women are physically assaulted during pregnancy, they're more likely to encounter problems with their pregnancy.
But, she said, it is the indirect effects of domestic violence that are especially worrisome.
"Women who experience violence during pregnancy are stressed," she said. "We know that stress is associated with increased risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes."
Women who are in abusive relationships are also more likely to have less prenatal care and inadequate nutritional intake, she said, and some may turn to coping behaviors such as drinking or smoking cigarettes.
Saftlas said she hopes that these findings will encourage OBGYNS and general practitioners to do more to screen pregnant women for signs of abuse, so they can get access to resources.
"Pregnancy is a very wonderful but vulnerable time for both mother and child," she said. "My hope is that there will be more research to evaluate the efficacy of these interventions for reducing violence in the lives of these women, and ideally interventions to prevent the violence from occurring in the first place."
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