NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Women who are the victims of domestic abuse tend to take their infants to the doctor more often than other mothers do, a new study finds.
Knowing this, researchers say, could help doctors spot women who are at heightened risk of abuse from their partners.
The findings, published in the Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health, come from a study of 616 new mothers who were asked about their healthcare use six weeks after giving birth.
Nearly one-third of the women said they had been physically or sexually abused by their partner or former partner before, during or since their pregnancy.
In general, the researchers found, abused women were more likely to have called or visited a health provider because of concerns about their baby’s health. More than 60 percent had sought health advice for their 6-week-old, versus roughly 53 percent of new mothers who reported no abuse.
“Health care providers should view frequent calls or visits for common infant health concerns as red flags,” senior researcher Dr. Linda Bullock, of the University of Missouri in Columbia, noted in a written statement.
“Although it can be difficult for providers to see beyond immediate concerns,” she added, “the findings suggest that considering only voiced concerns may represent lost opportunities to intervene on more critical health matters that impact mothers and children.”
It’s not clear from the study why abused mothers sought medical advice more often. However, the researchers say, the abused women did have a higher rate of depression and tended to have less social support than the other mothers. It’s possible that stress made these mothers “hypervigilant” about looking for potential problems with their babies, or that the infants actually had a higher rate of health issues.
Some abused women may also have been trying to use health consultations as a way to “seek safety” for themselves and their newborns, the researchers note.
Bullock thinks pediatric and women’s-health clinics should consider routinely screening women for abuse.
“The most powerful intervention,” she said, “may be as simple as repeated screening for (intimate-partner violence) throughout pregnancy and post-delivery visits. Providers have a chance to help mothers who may not directly seek the necessary resources to help themselves.”
SOURCE: Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health, November 2008.