Researchers from University of Haifa, studying animal behavior, find that trauma experienced by a mother even before pregnancy can have emotional and behavioral effects on a child’s behavior. Even though past trauma does not directly affect pregnancy, the study revealing the behavior of offspring of traumatized animals is viewed as important by the study authors for its implications in human children and the potential impact of trauma experienced by mothers, and how it affects childhood behavior before conception.
For the study, the scientists observed rat behavior because of their sociability and human-like cerebral activity. They found that trauma experience by mother rats before pregnancy influence how their offspring behaved. The study looked at three groups, one of which was exposed to stressful activities two weeks prior to mating, and a second treated the same, one week before mating. A third control group was not exposed to any form of stress. The researchers found that the offspring in the rats exposed to traumatic stress had less interaction, and spent less time with each other – a distinct difference from the mother’s that did not experience trauma before becoming pregnant.
Females showed higher levels of anxiety. The offspring of mothers exposed to traumatic stress just prior to mating were hyperactive, indicating that the closer ti pregnancy a mother’s trauma occurs, the greater the chance trauma, even before pregnancy, will affect the behavior of offspring.
Scientists have known for some time that trauma occurring to mothers during pregnancy can affect child behavior, but until now, no one has looked at the effect of a mother’s trauma on her offspring before pregnancy.
"Everyone knows that smoking harms the fetus and therefore a mother must not smoke during pregnancy. The findings of the present study show that adversity from a mother's past, even well before her pregnancy, does affect her offspring, even when they are adult, says Prof. Micah Leshem, one of the study authors. “We should be prepared for analogous effects in humans: for example, in children born to mothers who may have been exposed to war well before becoming pregnant.”
The findings that trauma may affect the health of a human child, even before pregnancy, is published in Developmental Psychology , and may have important implications for understanding childhood behavior based on past history of trauma that occurs to mothers before conception even happens.