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Domestic Violence and Pregnancy: Understanding the Risks

Intimate partner violence is a devastating and often underreported issue impacting pregnant women. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, it is estimated that up to 20 percent of pregnant women experience violence during pregnancy. Experiencing domestic violence during pregnancy is more common than conditions such as gestational diabetes or preeclampsia. This article will discuss intimate partner violence during pregnancy, signs of intimate partner violence as well as what you can do if you or a loved one experience domestic violence.

What is Domestic Violence?

Many women may question if they are currently experiencing domestic abuse. Simply put, domestic violence is any form of harm that happens in the home. The abuse can be physical, emotional, sexual or even financial.

Statistics Regarding Pregnancy and Domestic Violence:

Despite the significant number of women who experience violence while pregnant, education regarding this widespread issue is lacking. The statistics, however, are shocking. Per the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the leading cause of death among pregnant women is homicide. Women with unintended pregnancies are up to four times more likely to experience violence during pregnancy than women with planned pregnancies. As reported by the National Partnership for Women and Families, many women indicate that their abuse started or intensified during pregnancy.

Health Risks to Pregnancy:

Intimate partner violence poses significant health risks to both mother and baby. Victims of domestic violence are more likely to delay prenatal care. Violence during pregnancy is associated with low birth weight and preterm birth. Additionally, infants who are exposed to domestic violence demonstrate eating problems, higher levels of irritability and developmental delays.

Disproportionate Harm from Intimate Partner Violence:

Studies indicate that black, indigenous and other people of color suffer disproportionate harm as a result of domestic violence. Experts indicate that many in these communities have less access to resources that would prevent or mitigate the harms of intimate partner violence. The National Partnership for Women and Families states that 45 percent of black women report experiencing physical violence, sexual violence or staking by an intimate partner during their lifetime. This rate is almost 20 percent higher than the rate reported by non-Hispanic white women. Black and Latina victims of domestic violence are less likely to seek health care for their injuries compared with white survivors.

Why Do Abusers Escalate During Pregnancy?

One question that many mental health providers have sought to answer is why do abusers escalate during pregnancy? One reason is that pregnant women may become more financially reliant on their partner. Thus, they may be more reluctant to leave if they experience domestic violence. Abusers may see this reliance as a weakness. Additionally, some abusers may see the unborn baby as a threat. They may fear that the mother will love the baby more than the abuser. Domestic violence is also more likely if the pregnancy was unplanned. Many abusers like to feel as if they are in control, and the lack of control over the future may be triggering. In other cases, the abuser may believe that the baby is not his biological child. Finally, some victims report that the interruption in sexual activity as a result of pregnancy also contributed to the escalation of abuse.

What Are the Signs of Domestic Violence?

It can be very difficult to admit that you are in an abusive relationship. Many victims delay seeking assistance because they blame themselves for the abuse. In some cases, the abuser only displays abuse against the intimate partner, leaving the victim to feel as if she is at fault. It is important to stress that abusive individuals rarely take responsibility for their actions. The Mayo Clinic reports that these are some signs that you may be experiencing domestic violence in your relationship:

  • Your partner insults you, calls you names or puts you down.

  • You are discouraged from going to work or school or seeing family or friends.

  • Your partner controls your spending, where you go or what you wear.

  • Your partner is jealous, possessive or accuses you of being unfaithful.

  • You have been threatened with violence or a weapon.

  • Your partner’s anger escalates with drug or alcohol use.

  • You are forced to engage in sexual acts against your will.

  • Your partner blames you for the violence.

What Should I Do If I Experience Domestic Violence?

Experts recommend that victims of domestic violence take several precautions. It may be helpful to reach out to a local women’s shelter or domestic violence hotline to help plan leaving your abuser. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 800-799-SAFE (800-799-7233). It is important to have an emergency bag that includes items such as medications, important documents and extra clothes. This allows for you to leave on short notice if needed. Victims of domestic violence should be cautious regarding the use of phones or a home computer, as the abuser may have access to this communication. You may also reach out to a physician if there are physical injuries. Your physician can refer you to a mental health counselor. Often, your local court or domestic violence shelter can assist with requesting a legal retraining order.

Closing Message:

Pregnant women are at an increased risk of domestic violence. We all should be encouraged to spot the signs of intimate partner violence, with education also geared towards pregnant women and their healthcare providers. It is important for women to reach out for help if they believe that they are in an abusive relationship. There are resources available for survivors of domestic violence.

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