Domestic Violence and Pregnancy

Depressed pregnant woman crying while sitting on couch

Laflor / E+ / Getty Images

Pregnancy is supposed to be a time of peace and safety. A time where the family turns its thoughts towards raising the next generation and growing a healthy baby. Unfortunately for many women, pregnancy can be the beginning of a violent time in their lives.

Effects of Domestic Abuse on Pregnancy and Labor

Domestic abuse and violence against pregnant women have immediate and lasting effects. While some of the complications you might suspect are present, such as immediate injury to the woman or her baby, there are also other effects on the pregnancy.

Many women who are battered during pregnancy will continue unhealthy habits due to stress, such as smoking, resorting to drug use, and improper nutritional habits. These also affect pregnancy.

Immediate effects on pregnancy can include:

Abuse, both in the past and in a current relationship, particularly sexual abuse, has been shown to have effects on laboring women. There is even some speculation as to whether or not the previous history of sexual abuse can delay the baby from dropping into the pelvis, make the pushing stage longer, etc.

The constant pelvic exams by multiple people, the lack of privacy, the increasing sensations in the pelvic area from contractions and the baby, and the potential for a feeling of lost self-control all contribute to potential triggers for the women with these histories.

Counseling prior to labor, the involvement of the primary midwife or doctor can help lessen these sensations for the abuse survivor in the labor scenario. Precautions are taken to ensure fewer vaginal exams, pain relief of the choice of the woman, and reduction in the number of extraneous personnel at the birth are all ways to reduce the incidence of problems for these women.

Screening for Domestic Abuse

It is estimated that one in five women will be abused during pregnancy. As homicide during pregnancy now surpasses the previous leading causes of death (automobile accidents and falls), it is more important than ever that we know the signs and properly screen women for domestic violence.

The good news is that many women have a relationship with a health care provider, particularly during pregnancy and well baby visits, after birth (even for lower-income families). This allows for more opportunities for screening and prevention.

What we still need to work on is making sure that the care providers and emergency room workers know the signs of abuse and what to do about them. Currently about 17% of all routine health care providers screen for domestic violence at their first visit, with only 10% screening at subsequent visits.

Abused women come from all backgrounds and socioeconomic areas. There are barriers to determining who has suffered abuse because of fear of reprisal from the violent partner, lack of knowledgeable viable alternatives to money and housing issues, and embarrassment that she is even in this situation. Practitioners need to be sensitive to these issues.

Common signs might be:

  • Delay in seeking prenatal care
  • Unexplained bruising or damage to her breasts or abdomen
  • Continued use of products harmful to pregnancy (cigarettes, drugs, alcohol)
  • Reoccurring psychosomatic illnesses
  • Lack of attendance to prenatal education

Getting Help

Help is available for those involved in abusive relationships. Many states have programs to provide you with shelter and clothing, even prenatal care. The American Institute on Domestic Violence has a great page of resources, including a state by state listing of organizations. There is also a listing of international sites available. Remember, that help is available, and you are not alone. Please, for your sake and your baby's do not delay in seeking help, your lives may depend on it.

National Domestic Violence Hotline: If you are, or know someone who is, the victim of intimate partner violence, contact your local battered women's shelter or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233), 800-787-3224 TYY.

Loading shell for quizzesApp1 vue props component in Globe.
Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Bohn D, Holz K. Sequelae of abuse: health effects of childhood sexual abuse, domestic battering, and rape.​ J Nurs Midwifery 1996;41(6):442-56.

  • Bohn D, Holz K. Sequelae of abuse. J Nurse Midwifery 1996;41(6):442-56.

  • Brown J, Lent B, Brett P, Sas G, Pederson L. Development of the woman abuse screening tool for use in family practice. Fam Med 1996;28:422-8.

  • Campbell J, Poland M, Waller J, Ager J. Correlates of battering during pregnancy. Res Nurs Health 1992;15:219-26.

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Intimate Partner Violence.

  • Dietz P. Delayed entry into prenatal care: effect of physical violence. Obstet Gynecol 1997;90:221-4.

  • Enhanced Surveillance for Pregnancy-Associated Mortality, Maryland 1993-1998 Journal of the American Medical Association (Vol. 285, No. 11)

  • Goodwin T, Breen M. Pregnancy outcome and fetomaternal hemorrhage after noncatastrophic trauma. Am J Obstet Gynecol 1990;162:665-71.

  • McFarlane J, Parker B, Soeken K. Physical abuse, smoking and substance use during pregnancy: prevalence, interrelationships, and effects on birth weight. J Obstet Gynecol Neonatal Nurse 1996;25:313-20.

  • Newberger E, Barkan S, Lieberman E, et al. Abuse of pregnant women and adverse birth outcome. JAMA 1992;267:2370-2.

  • Petersen R, Gazmararian J, Spitz A, et al. Violence and adverse pregnancy outcomes. Am J Prev Med 1997;13(5):366-73.

  • National Association for County and City Health Officials (NACCHO). Intimate Partner Violence among Pregnant and Parenting Women: Local Health Department Strategies for Assessment, Intervention, and Prevention. 2008.