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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Mothers-to-be who believe infants dirty their diapers to bother their parents or purposefully ignore their mothers may be more likely to abuse or neglect their young children, a new study suggests.
U.S. researchers found that 8 percent of about 500 babies born in a small Southeastern city had at least one alleged or substantiated child abuse or neglect case on record. But that grew to 15 percent of infants born to women who scored the highest on a measure of "hostile attributions" during pregnancy.
It wasn't clear whether it was the mothers who were responsible for the maltreatment. But researchers said the study could still help doctors spot which women might need extra help when expecting a new baby.
"I think abusive parents often see (hostile intent) when it's not there," said Joel Milner, from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.
"They can misperceive the child's behavior as being intentionally annoying," Milner, who wrote a commentary published with the new study, told Reuters Health.
"When people are annoying us… we tend to be hostile and aggressive in return. They are more likely to view the child in a negative way."
Lisa Berlin from the University of Maryland School of Social Work in Baltimore and her colleagues recruited 499 women from public and private prenatal care offices and interviewed them midway through their pregnancies.
The women were asked about both positive and negative intentions of infants, such as, "Do babies seek praise when they do something clever?" and "Do babies ignore their mothers to be annoying?" The researchers ranked women's answers on a scale from 1 to 5, where 5 indicated the most hostile attributions for babies.
Then, using Child Protective Services (CPS) records, Berlin's team calculated that each 1-point increase on that scale was tied to a 26-percent greater chance that a child would be abused or neglected by about age two.
Four percent of babies born to women with the lowest, most positive prenatal attribution score had a CPS report, compared to 15 percent of those whose mothers scored highest, with the most negative views.
Women with more hostile attribution were also more likely to report yelling at or spanking their child on a follow-up phone interview, the researchers reported this week in JAMA Pediatrics.
According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, about 675,000 kids were reported as victims of child abuse or neglect in 2011 - just under one percent of children nationwide.
Berlin and her colleagues said doctors can assess how mothers and mothers-to-be view babies' intentions and start a discussion or refer women to parenting services if they perceive a problem.
Milner cautioned, however, that there's not an easy way to address hints of future abuse among mothers. Trying to convince someone that babies don't have hostile intentions doesn't necessarily work. Instead, he said, one option could be using mindfulness techniques to encourage parents not to act on anger they feel toward a child.
"We're still trying to figure out what the best interventions are," Milner said.
SOURCE: bit.ly/11l9IvV JAMA Pediatrics, online April 15, 2013.