Adverse Babyhood Experiences: A Focus for Prevention

By Brittany T. Smith, BS.  Brittany is a Ph.D. student at the WVU School of Public Health in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Her primary research interest is in adverse childhood experiences and children who experience parental substance use.  The research work she has done has been presented at state, national, and international conferences.

Young pregnant woman suffering from backache
Young pregnant woman suffering from backache

Over the years Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and their consequences on health have become more well known. ACEs are potentially traumatic events that occur before someone turns 18 years old. These experiences typically include experiences of abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction and are linked to many negative health outcomes. Recently, adverse babyhood experiences (ABEs) have expanded on what is known about childhood adversity. ABEs are ten categories of negative events that happen to a mother before she conceives a child and the negative events that occur during pregnancy, labor, and up to the child’s third birthday. Like ACEs, ABEs are linked to chronic illness, like asthma, depression, diabetes, obesity, stroke, and coronary heart disease. However, these illnesses can be prevented or reduced proving ABEs to be a great target for early interventions. Preventing and/or repairing ABEs is also a way to decrease the risk of a child experiencing ACEs. Research has shown that when adversity occurs during certain time periods it can result in more severe delays and illness. This is one reason ABE research has become an area of interest, it targets a critical time period in child development.  

The ten categories of ABEs are:  

  • Maternal Loss-Trauma
  • Lack of Support  
  • Emotional Stress 
  • Physical Stress/Illness 
  • Maternal Complications 
  • Mother Baby Separation
  • Low or High Birth Weight  
  • Difficulty Breastfeeding 
  • Early Symptoms of Mental Health Illness and Disconnection.  

Mothers who are in recovery from substance use disorder and their infants may have an increased risk for experiencing ABEs. For example, studies have shown that women in SUD treatment have experienced high levels of trauma. Also, infants born to mothers with SUD have the chance to be diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome and other complication that can result in maternal separation. These experiences are not the fault of the mother or child and should not be seen as something for mothers to be ashamed. There are evidence-based practices that can prevent and/or heal ABEs and ACEs, such as prenatal support, skin to skin contact, and low intensity medical interventions. More information and material on ABE can be found below.  

Reference: 

1. Mead VP. Adverse Babyhood Experiences (ABEs) Increase Risk for Infant and Maternal Morbidity and Mortality, and Chronic Illness. Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health. 2020;34(4):285-317. 

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