Published:  2019-02

The impact of childhood trauma and psychophysiological reactivity on at-risk women’s adjustment to parenthood

Authors:  Mirjam Oosterman, Carlo Schuengel, Mirte L. Forrer, Marleen H. M. De Moor

Tags:  adverse childhood experiences, anxiety, autonomic nervous system reactivity, depressive symptoms, harsh discipline, parenting self-efficacy

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Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) have an impact on women’s adaptation to parenthood, but mechanisms are poorly understood. Autonomic nervous system reactivity was tested as a potential mediating mechanism in a sample of 193 at-risk primiparous women. ACEs were measured retrospectively during pregnancy. A baby cry-response task was administered during pregnancy while indicators of sympathetic reactivity (pre-ejection period; PEP) and parasympathetic reactivity (respiratory sinus arrhythmia; RSA) were recorded. Parenting self-efficacy, anxiety, and depressive symptoms were measured during pregnancy and 1 year after giving birth. Harsh discipline was measured 2 years after giving birth. Structural equation modeling was employed to test whether baseline PEP and RSA and reactivity mediated links between ACEs and postnatal outcomes, adjusted for prenatal variables. High ACEs predicted less RSA reactivity (p = .02), which subsequently predicted increases in depressive symptoms (p = .03). The indirect effect was not significant (p = .06). There was no indirect link between high ACEs and harsh parenting through PEP nor RSA (n = 98). The parasympathetic nervous system may be involved in negative affective responses in the transition to parenthood among women exposed to childhood trauma.