Last month, it was reported an Edmonton woman was badly beaten by her spouse. Though the attack put her in the hospital, the police offered a silver lining by stating her unborn baby, at least, wasn't harmed.
Sadly, this claim underestimates the profound effect severe stress can have on children's development in their first years of life, including while they're still in the womb. In order to help end the cycles of violence that all too often lead to these situations, we must understand the full effects of abuse and neglect early in life -- and what can be done to correct them.
Evidence shows exposure to their mother's prenatal stress in consistently high doses -- a state called "toxic stress" -- affects fetal and infant brain architecture, placing the growing child at risk of emotional and intellectual challenges. They have a harder time paying attention to instructions and fare worse in puzzles and activities designed to measure cognitive ability.
The main culprit is a stress hormone called cortisol. Though made naturally in our bodies and a key part of our stress-response system, cortisol can be nasty stuff in large doses. Our glands produce it in times of real or perceived danger, where it shifts us into a kind of emergency mode: redistributing energy from our organs to our major muscle groups -- the better to flee or fight with - and shutting down our immune and digestive systems to concentrate on the more immediate task of survival.
All of this is important when fleeing from a tiger, or battling a warring tribe, or any of the other myriad dangers that plagued our distant ancestors. But in the face of extreme stress experienced by some people today, it can become a liability, as its presence prevents the body from returning to its pre-stressed state, called homeostasis.
Homeostasis is where our bodies function most optimally; if we lose the ability to downshift to this lower gear, the long-term wear and tear can be considerable. Prolonged exposure to toxic stress has been linked to depression, heart disease, diabetes and alcoholism -- diseases we associate with adulthood but whose seeds are often sown in the first years of our lives.
Fortunately, many effects of toxic stress can be mitigated. The cure is not a matter of expensive pills or complex medical treatments. For parents, it's a matter of support. Supporting parents, through women's shelters, tax relief or better services for those with mental illness, means we help two generations, parents and the next generation.
The same study that reported an association between prenatal stress and lower cognitive abilities in children found these problems were completely reversible, so long as children received consistent, loving attention from at least one caregiver. "Serve-and-return relationships," characterized by responsive, helpful interactions between children and adults, have powerful healing effects.
The exact mechanisms aren't well-understood, but we think caring relationships with parents act a stress-filtration system for children, buffering them from bursts of cortisol their bodies aren't yet equipped to handle.
Support can be the difference in repeating or breaking a cycle of violence.
To end abuse, to eliminate poverty, to help solve the thorniest problems our society faces, we must begin at the beginning: prenatal and infancy. We must support their parents, especially the most stressed. We all have a stake in protecting and supporting families to give all our children the best start.
Nicole Letourneau is an expert adviser with EvidenceNetwork.ca and a professor in the faculties of nursing and medicine at the University of Calgary. Justin Joschko is a freelance writer in Ottawa.