ACEs and Pregnancy

For many women, seeing a positive result on a pregnancy test is a moment of pure joy, the culmination of months (or even years) of hope, and the start of a fulfilling journey to motherhood. But pregnancy isn’t easy, physically or emotionally. It places extraordinary demands on a woman’s body and may cause stress in relationships, introduce financial hardship, and affect self-esteem. It is undoubtedly the most dramatic and permanent life change most women will ever face.

As wonderful as the prospect of bringing a new life into the world may be, it comes with its own unique set of challenges when viewed through a trauma-informed lens. The two lives of a mother and her growing infant are inextricably intertwined, and stress and trauma can have a startling impact on both. While a mother brings her own childhood experiences to her pregnancy, she may also be encountering new ones, and since the baby is exposed to all the hormones and emotions of the mother during its crucial in-utero development, pregnancy is a critical time to discuss Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).

To discuss ACEs and pregnancy fully, we need to understand it from two points of view.
1.) How ACEs have affected the mother’s life, how they may still be affecting her mentally and physically, and how they might interfere with her ability to nurture and care for her child.
2.) How a mother’s ACEs affect her developing baby and what effects the infant might experience in the womb and during its first few years of life.

A Time of Change and Challenge

Some of the issues a prospective new mom might be going through include:
• identity shifts
• fear of inadequacy as a parent
• loss of independence
• delay or loss of personal goals and dreams
• relationship conflicts
• financial uncertainties
• ambivalence about bonding with her baby
• body image difficulties
• hormonal dysregulation
These issues are especially magnified if the pregnancy is unplanned or unwanted.

In addition to all these new feelings and insecurities, finding out that she is pregnant often focuses a mother-to-be's attention on the concept of parenting. This can bring past traumas to the surface, especially if she was a victim of childhood abuse or neglect. Symptoms of depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress may return, or surface for the first time, during pregnancy. It's a tumultuous time and one when the consequences of ACE can be clearly seen but also an opportunity to intervene and hopefully prevent the cycle of ACEs from continuing into the next generation.

For example, a recent study using data from the 2010 Nevada Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System showed that a history of childhood stressors, such as physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, influenced alcohol use among pregnant women. The research found a dose–response relationship between ACEs and alcohol use during pregnancy. This study contributes to a growing body of research that shows that the factors affecting alcohol use during pregnancy begin long before fact, they likely begin in the pregnant mother’s own childhood.

Health Risks Associated with High ACE Scores

When adults become parents, the effects that ACEs have had on their own bodies, minds, and behaviors can influence how they experience their pregnancy as well as the physical health of their growing baby.

  • When a pregnant woman is exposed to chronic stress, large amounts of neurohormones are released into her blood stream and can change the developing fetus' own stress response system.
  • Maternal stress hormones can cross the placenta as early as 17 weeks into pregnancy.
  • Women with high ACE scores are more likely to develop gestational diabetes and high blood pressure.
  • They are more likely to deliver prematurely or have a baby that is underweight or requires NICU care.
  • Even when they deliver full-term, their babies are at greater risk for developmental delays.

The good news is that during pregnancy mothers are particularly receptive to ideas on how to positively impact their baby’s life and more open to positive reinforcement about improving their own lives. Pregnancy represents the perfect point to intervene on behalf of both mother and child. Often, just finding out that she is pregnant brings a new sense of hope and determination to a woman. Pregnancy offers the opportunity for her to discuss her own childhood issues, make improvements in her life, and perhaps really confront past traumas for the first time. Pregnant women should be encouraged to openly and honestly ask for support from family and friends. In most cases, once loved ones are aware of past trauma, they respond with concern and compassion, which can be a relief for the mother-to-be and a source of comfort. For some, this may well be the right time to consider counselling or seek professional support, if needed.

Identifying At-Risk Moms

Identifying moms-to-be with high ACE scores is crucial. A simple ACE questionnaire conducted during routine pre-natal care visits can indicate the need for early intervention. This tool can help begin discussion around the concept of ACEs -- that a mom's (and other caregivers') behaviors when the baby is in utero and during its first few years of life can position their baby either for success and wellbeing or for possible lifelong poor health outcomes.

According to a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Women’s Health, when moms-to-be were surveyed at two Kaiser Permanente clinics in Antioch and Richmond, CA, from March through June 2016, clinicians discovered that the women were receptive to filling out an Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) survey. The researchers found that the vast majority of the pregnant women — 91 percent of the 375 surveyed— were “very or somewhat comfortable” filling out the ACE survey. Even more, 93 percent, said that they were comfortable talking about the results with their doctors. Simply using the ACE questionnaire as a tool provides an opening for discussion and thus plays a small part in providing a safeguard for the unborn baby and hopefully preventing multigenerational trauma transmission. For the most at-risk women, an intensive course of action might be necessary.

How Can We Protect a Baby in utero When ACE Scores are High?

Providing an at-risk pregnant woman with intensive support and practical resources will benefit her, her baby, and those around her.
The ideal approach would include all or most of the following:

  • Conduct joint counseling sessions with a professional therapist, the mother, the father, and other children in the home. This can be extremely helpful and informative for all involved.
  • Fully integrate behavioral health services with the mother’s medical team to optimize outcomes.
  • Train all medical staff (including pediatricians, midwives, OB-GYN practitioners, and ultrasound technicians) to be trauma-informed.
  • Connect the mother with a nutritionist and other ancillary support services for after she delivers.
  • Encourage the mother to connect with the baby in utero to promote bonding and stimulate mothering instincts.

Center for Child Counseling works extensively to implement some of these best practices. Therapists in our Infant Mental Health Program (funded by the Children's Services Council) provide services throughout Palm Beach County for pregnant women, new mothers, and young children. We also partner with Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies in their efforts to provide support to all new moms and their babies born in the County.

Research increasingly shows that the connection between a pregnant mother and her unborn baby is even more powerful than previously imagined. While love may be instantaneous and natural for most moms-to-be, it may not be as intuitive for women who have a history of abuse, neglect, or trauma. These mothers can work on building that bond by practicing some loving exercises with their unborn baby.

For example, here are some ideas to help a pregnant woman connect with her growing baby girl:

  • Tell the baby often that she is loved.
  • Share how happy you are that she is a girl.
  • Reassure the baby that you are eagerly waiting to meet her.
  • You are ready to care for her, meet her needs, and protect her.
  • Her birth is welcome. She is good news.
  • Read stories to her, sing to her, and laugh as often as possible.
  • Choose and use silly, loving nicknames for her.
  • Babies seem to respond strongly to music and rocking/swaying. Dance with her.
  • Your voice forms a bond with your baby. Talk to her.

The Role of "Buffers" for Moms and Babies

Since we know that “buffers” are the single greatest weapon in the fight against ACEs, pregnancy is the perfect time to be the buffer for an expectant mom.

Listening, showing genuine concern, and offering love and support is the single greatest gift you can give a mom with a high ACE score.

You might share strengths you see in her. Constantly reassure her that she is a kind, capable, strong woman and that she is going to be a wonderful, giving mom. She does not have to repeat mistakes from her past and can give her baby the gift of a happy childhood, even if she never experienced that herself. Support should come, crucially, from spouses or partners (if they are present), but friends, family members, and neighbors can help, too. Community support is key. Women who connect with no- or low-cost community support programs fare better than those who remain isolated. Mothers-to-be support groups, centering circles, and even children’s reading groups at local libraries are places where pregnant women and new moms can meet and share with one another.

Pregnancy is a time for teamwork at every level. When mothers who have experienced childhood trauma feel supported by the people around them, their risk of pregnancy complications and repeating negative patterns are substantially reduced.

ACEs don’t define who we are or who we will become. Every pregnancy is a brand-new start, a fresh chance to bring a happy, healthy new life into the world. With support, people who have endured ACEs can achieve emotional and physical well-being and be given a better chance to avoid repeating trauma-causing cycles. It is compelling to realize the real difference each of us can make in someone else’s life – simply by choosing to be a kinder, more compassionate, and more giving person.

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ACEs: How to Be a Buffer for a Child

Research shows that just one positive adult can dramatically improve the outlook for a child suffering from Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Learn how your simple actions can provide a buffer against toxic stress and change the course of a child's life.

Remember when you were a child. Think back. Remind yourself how vulnerable you were. The world was big; you were little. Was there ever a time when someone protected you? For many of us, it was an older sibling, maybe a big brother, who stepped in, literally, and came between us and a bully or danger. Do you remember how safe that made you feel? How exhilarating it was, in your moment of need, to know that you could rely on help to arrive. When you hurt yourself or had your feelings hurt, you probably ran to a parent who gave you a caring hug and soothed you. Without consciously knowing it, those of us with these sorts of memories were running to a buffer, looking for the concern and protection every single child needs and deserves…but which not every child gets.

For millions of children worldwide, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) make growing up a challenge at best and a chaotic nightmare at worst. The brain of a child growing up in a home with attentive parents will create a world view where adults as safe, predictable, and a source of love and sustenance. But the brain of a child living in a home plagued by domestic violence or neglect will create a world view where adults are unreliable and a source of fear and pain. Children carry these ideas with them and they color all future relationships. Depending on their experiences and outlook, children can grow to become nurturing, invested adults or mistrustful, suspicious and withholding.

During this blog series, we’ve learned about ACEs, their tragic lifelong consequences for individuals and communities, and how we must urgently address this greatest of all public health crises. Rather than being overwhelmed by the statistics though, let’s focus on hope because healing is possible.

As a society, we now know more about ACEs than ever before. That knowledge empowers us. On a system level in Palm Beach County, we’ve mobilized the community to fight ACEs, but the truly encouraging news is that you don’t need to be an expert to help turn a child’s life around. Of course, severely traumatized children might need the professional help and compassion provided by skilled therapists like those at the Center for Child Counseling, but for many of the others the answer is relatively straight-forward. The answer is you.

As someone who loves and cares for a child, or who interacts with children often, it is vital to be ACEs educated and trauma informed. Simply by reading this educational blog series, you’ve demonstrated an interest in the subject. You’re already equipped to play your small but vital part in the fight.

Adjust Your Approach
Being trauma-informed really means adjusting our thinking and the way we respond and react to a child’s behavior. Instead of asking: “What’s wrong with you?” the focus should be: “What happened to you?” This changes our attitude to consider what the child has experienced rather than the resulting behaviors which may be frustrating. Follow-up questions will help get to the cause of the problem, questions like: “When did this happen?”, “How long has it been going on?” and “Who has been there to help you since this happened?” This way of approaching children helps to avoid re-traumatizing already traumatized people. It creates a safe, non-judgmental place where children feel secure enough to share their experiences and ask for help without fear of punishment or retribution.

Be a Buffer
Supportive, loving caregivers can buffer the effects of toxic environmental stress. There are many ways you can support a child with ACEs. Studies show that a positive, nurturing relationship with even one engaged adult can help a child cope with adversity. Consider how you interact with children—your own and other people’s—and focus on being loving, kind, and genuinely interested in them.

Easy Ways to be a Buffer
In the bestselling novel “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett, a devoted nanny repeatedly tells the young child in her care: “You are kind. You are smart. You are important.” Let that be your mantra when helping a child who has experienced ACEs. Whether you’re a teacher, neighbor, coach, community volunteer, or friend of the family, being a buffer means employing several different approaches aimed at:
• Reducing stress
• Building positive relationship
• Strengthening life skills

Here are some practical, real-world ways you can combat the toxic stress caused by ACEs.

When we celebrate a child’s achievements and challenges, both big and small, and affirm who they are as individuals, we support the development of their self-identity and remind them of their competence, importance, and lovability. When we acknowledge their birthdays, graduations, or everyday accomplishments like completing their homework, making a new friend, or doing chores, we help children build positive self-esteem. It may be something as simple as a clap, a smile, or a ‘thumbs up’. These simple gestures are expressions of support that can build self-confidence and help a child to thrive.

Comfort = Safety:
Children who have experienced trauma or toxic stress need comfort. Often, they need help to manage their emotions and to calm themselves down. Practicing relaxation, patience, and emotional regulation may help them connect with their feelings. Creating a safe environment is one of the most valuable components in re-establishing a sense of security and stability for a child. Whether the issue seems big or small, offer reassurance and always reinforce your commitment to be there for them. Sometimes it can be difficult to stay calm and supportive when a child exhibits the behaviors associated with toxic stress, but a measured response tells them that you are solid and reliable.

Help Children Collaborate:
Science shows that children who have been exposed to toxic stress may struggle to appreciate others’ perspectives. They may lack a sense of belonging. They may not have the skills or the know-how to reach out. And they may need help controlling their emotions, working through their problems, and gaining independence. Every day there are opportunities to collaborate or work with children towards common goals. With simple examples, you can teach problem solving and basic negotiating techniques to deal with conflict. When children learn to collaborate fairly, they feel like part of a team rather than isolated.

Grow Optimism:
We’ve already learned that a young child’s growing brain has plasticity – it’s still forming neural pathways and those pathways can be altered for the better. Brain science shows that we can actually train our brains to be more optimistic and hopeful about the future by practicing positive self-talk. You can reinforce this kind of positive brain growth in the children you know.

Don’t Just Hear…Listen:
It may sound easy, but listening is a skill we all need to practice. For all children, especially those who have experienced traumatic stress and violence, a patient and receptive adult who listens can help them feel safe and valued. Active listening means paying careful attention to what is being said, rather than simply hearing it. Listening is the foundation of learning and understanding what a child is trying to communicate. It shows care and concern. Listening to a child and teaching them how to listen helps them communicate and see situations from other people’s perspective – a key to empathy. Whether children are sharing happiness, sadness, anger, or fear, having someone truly listen to them matters.

Hold on to Healthy Relationships:
Often, when parents separate or divorce, it becomes a challenge to help kids maintain healthy contact with grandparents, supportive adults, and extended family members. One key to reducing stress is making the effort to maintain contact with these positive influences. It’s never a bad idea to let your children interact with people who truly love them…sometimes it means setting aside personal feelings in the best interest of the child.

To inspire someone means to lift them up with your words. Children need constant encouragement to recognize and reach their full potential. They need help identifying dreams and working towards them. Children who have witnessed violence and experienced traumatic stress can become negative, often have a low sense of self-worth, expect to be unsuccessful, and fail to foresee a positive future. But caring adults can help children reverse these negative responses. You can help inspire a child by identifying their strengths and natural talents and by connecting them to programs that help develop self-confidence.

Those who spend more time with children, like teachers, caregivers and, of course, parents have a greater opportunity to provide the tools that can really have a positive impact. Increasingly, schools, sports clubs and community events aimed at children are including elements of mindfulness training, self-care, and self-regulation activities in their work. But every one of us, even those of us who only have time to give a child a quick high-five, can consider it a privilege that we are contributing to that child’s resilience, health, and wellbeing.

Sign up now for news, events, and education about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and promoting resilience.

By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive emails from: Center for Child Counseling, 8895 N. Military Trail, Palm Beach Gardens, FL, 33410. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email.
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