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Domestic violence during pregnancy

This article discusses domestic violence, which may be a sensitive topic for some readers.

No one deserves to be abused. If you are trying to conceive or you are already pregnant and you’re experiencing abuse, seeking help is critical for protecting yourself and your baby. Intimate partner violence (IPV) can intensify during pregnancy, and sometimes the first time a person experiences IPV is while they are pregnant.1

If you’re pregnant and in an abusive relationship — or suspect you might be — you may feel frightened, overwhelmed and impossibly stuck. But support, in many forms, is out there. Here’s how to make a safety plan and find help. Note: If you ever believe your life is in danger, call 9-1-1 immediately.

What does IPV in pregnancy look like?

Abuse comes in many different forms. Some are not physical but can be just as damaging. Let's take a closer look at forms of abuse.

Physical abuse during pregnancy

  • What does it look like? According to March of Dimes, physical abuse can take many forms: “hitting, slapping, kicking, choking, pushing or even pulling your hair.” If you’re pregnant, the abuse may be directed at your abdominal area.1
  • What should I know? Physical abuse can lead to physical injuries and, depending on the severity, can be life-threatening.2 Sometimes physical abuse results in chronic pain or long-term physical disabilities.2 There’s also an increased risk of vaginal bleeding, preterm labor, miscarriage or low birthweight when the baby is born.1 Physical abuse can cause emotional trauma and can even make it difficult to bond with your baby.2

Psychological abuse, including mental and emotional abuse, during pregnancy

  • What does it look like? According to the American Conference to End Coercive Control (ACECC), psychological abuse during pregnancy may include “intimidation, crazy making, controlling food intake, controlling lifestyle and prenatal treatment, [or] stalking/unwanted gifts.”3 This type of abuse also includes your partner threatening to hurt you or your baby.2 Forced isolation, which is when your partner prevents you from seeing family members or friends, is another form of psychological abuse.1
  • What should I know? According to March of Dimes, the effects of emotional abuse “may lead you to feel scared or depressed, eat unhealthy foods, or pick up habits such as smoking or drinking.”1 The psychological abuse you experience can also affect your baby after birth, causing issues such as obesity, anxiety, depression, or poor academic or social performance later in life.3

Sexual violence during pregnancy

  • What does it look like? Sex or any sexual act that you do not want, or that is forced on you, is an act of sexual violence.2
  • What should I know? In addition to physical injuries and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), sexual violence during pregnancy can cause anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and potential difficulties with bonding and parenting after the baby is born.2

Verbal abuse during pregnancy

  • What does it look like? The ACECC defines verbal abuse during pregnancy as “yelling, name calling, jokes at [your] expense, constant put-downs/criticism” and “criticizing [your] natural pregnancy weight gain or body shape.”3 Is your partner constantly blaming you for things you haven’t done? March of Dimes says that’s also a form of abuse.1
  • What should I know? The ACECC states that verbal abuse during pregnancy can result in adverse outcomes for the baby including “auditory dysfunction, speech delays, language disorders, anxiety/depression ... intrauterine growth delays, digestive issues, asthma [and] allergies.”3

Economic or financial abuse during pregnancy

  • What does it look like? In this scenario, your partner is exerting control over you through financial means. They may try to disrupt or sabotage your career by making you shoulder all of the childcare responsibilities, dictating the terms of your maternity leave, insisting you don’t return to work or preventing you from contacting your colleagues or employer.4 Economic abuse also includes refusing to help with the increased expenses that come with being pregnant and having a baby, or not paying child support.4
  • What should I know? In 2022, a scoping review in BMC Public Health of 35 peer-reviewed manuscripts published since 2000 examined the impact of economic abuse on survivors of IPV. The studies showed that economic abuse results in a significant increase in “material or economic hardship,” as well as health issues such as depression, difficulty managing weight, stomach issues, allergies and heart palpitations, and less involvement with the baby or other children.5

Why does domestic violence increase during pregnancy?

Abuse is never justified. A partner’s resentfulness and jealousy about your pregnancy — causing the spotlight to shift from them to you and the unborn baby — can fuel IPV.6 According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, your partner may also “be stressed at the thought of financially supporting a child, frustrated at the increased responsibilities or angry that their partner’s body is changing.”6 If your pregnancy was unplanned, March of Dimes notes that your partner may feel upset by this unexpected reality.1

It’s important to understand that you are not to blame and that there is no excuse for any type of violence or abuse during pregnancy or at any other time.

Signs you are in an abusive relationship

If you’re wondering if your relationship is simply going through a rough patch or if you’re experiencing abuse, this list of questions from March of Dimes can help you decide. If you answer yes to any of these, you may be in an abusive relationship and you should seek help immediately:

  • “Does my partner always put me down and make me feel bad about myself?”
  • “Has my partner caused harm or pain to my body?”
  • “Does my partner threaten me, the baby, my other children or himself?”
  • “Does my partner blame me for his actions? Does he tell me it’s my own fault he hit me?”
  • “Is my partner becoming more violent as time goes on?”
  • “Has my partner promised never to hurt me again, but still does?”1

What you can do if you are in an abusive relationship while pregnant

The first step is to acknowledge to yourself that you’re in an abusive relationship.1 Answering the above questions can help, as can seeking support from people you trust. This can include a family member, friend, healthcare professional, counselor, clergy member or teacher.1,7 Their perspective can be invaluable, especially if you are second-guessing yourself.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline suggests using time when your partner is out of the room during a prenatal appointment to talk with your ob-gyn; you can ask the receptionist for help with staging a one-on-one excuse to talk with them separately.7 Or try to find a prenatal class that only allows you to attend, so you can talk openly with the instructor.7

If you know you’re in an abusive relationship, the next step is to form a safety plan.

How to form a safety plan

  • While you should call 9-1-1 if you need immediate or emergency assistance, you should also memorize or store a couple of additional numbers in your phone, including your local police department and your healthcare professional’s office.1
  • Record evidence of the abuse. Note the time, date and details of each incident, and take pictures of your injuries. Store the evidence in a safe place.8
  • Establish a haven, a safe place you can go any day, any time, no matter the circumstances, with a family member, friend or neighbor you trust.1 Your haven also may be a women’s shelter. If possible, research shelters so you know where the closest ones are and what policies they may have (for example, if you can bring children with you).8
  • Speaking of children, it’s important that you make a plan with them. The National Domestic Violence Hotline recommends identifying “a safe place where they can go during moments of crisis, like a room with a lock or a friend’s house.” Talk to your children and “reassure them that their job is to stay safe, not to protect you.”8
  • Keep important items in one safe place, including your ID (driver’s license and social security card), proof of health insurance, your checkbook, bank account information and a debit card, and prescription medications. Having some extra cash (ask a trusted family member or friend to hold it for you) is wise, too.1,8
  • March of Dimes also suggests assembling a “go bag” filled with essential toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, soap), a change of clothes (for you and your kids, if applicable), and an extra set of house and car keys (ask a trusted family member or friend to hold these items for you, too).1

Keep in mind what you might need to do once you've left the relationship if that is what you decide to do. Check out the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s list of precautions to consider, which includes tasks such as changing your locks and phone numbers, renting a post office box and rescheduling regularly occurring appointments.

How to seek help for IPV during pregnancy

Experiencing domestic violence is often isolating and terrifying, but many advocates and resources exist, including but not limited to these:

Remember, no one deserves to be in an abusive relationship. If you are being abused — physically, psychologically, sexually, verbally or economically — it’s imperative that you seek help for the protection of both you and your baby. Keep these mantras top of mind: Many people out there are ready to help you. You are more powerful than you may think. You are not alone.

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  1. March of Dimes. Abuse during pregnancy. Accessed August 22, 2023. https://www.marchofdimes.org/find-support/topics/pregnancy/abuse-during-pregnancy
  2. Agarwal S, Prasad R, Mantri S, et al. A comprehensive review of intimate partner violence during pregnancy and its adverse effects on maternal and fetal health. Cureus. 2023. doi: 10/7759/cureus.39262. Accessed August 22, 2023. https://www.cureus.com/articles/157256-a- comprehensive-review-of-intimate-partner-violence-during-pregnancy-and-its-adverse-effects- on-maternal-and-fetal-health
  3. Americas Conference to End Coercive Control. The science behind coercive control and adverse outcomes during pregnancy. Updated November 13, 2020. Accessed August 22, 2023. https://www.theacecc.com/post/the-science-behind-coercive-control-and-the-adverse- outcomes-during-pregnancy
  4. Surviving Economic Abuse. Economic wellbeing and maternity — a guide for employers. Updated January 2022. Accessed August 22, 2023. https://survivingeconomicabuse.org/im- supporting-someone/resources-for-professionals/economic-wellbeing-and-maternity-employer- guide
  5. Johnson L, Chen Y, Stylianou A, et al. Examining the impact of economic abuse on survivors of intimate partner violence: a scoping review. BMC Public Health 2022;22:1014. Doi: 10.1186/s12889-022-13297-4. Accessed August 22, 2023. https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-022-13297-4
  6. National Domestic Violence Hotline. Pregnancy and abuse: how to stay safe for your 9 months. Accessed August 22, 2023. https://www.thehotline.org/resources/pregnancy-and-abuse-how- to-stay-safe-for-your-9-months/
  7. National Domestic Violence Hotline. Safety planning during pregnancy. Accessed August 22, 2023. https://www.thehotline.org/resources/safety-planning-during-pregnancy/
  8. National Domestic Violence Hotline. Preparing to leave. Accessed August 22, 2023. https://www.thehotline.org/resources/preparing-to-leave-2/