Does childhood trauma increase the risk for postpartum depression?

August 17, 2022

Past research has highlighted the importance of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) in the increase of adult depression risks. Since an abundance of evidence about the link between ACEs and depression already exists we chose to hone in on the link between ACEs and depression during the postpartum period in the VCU L.I.F.E study "Maternal adverse childhood experiences and postpartum depressive symptoms in young, low-income women".

The 491 women who completed our survey were mostly young, low-income, and racially/ethnically diverse city dwellers. Over half of participants reported exposure to at least one type of ACEs. The study also found some disparities in ACEs by race/ethnicity. For example, African American mothers were twice as likely as non-Hispanic White mothers to report exposure to at least one ACEs. More importantly, our recent finding confirmed that exposure to ACEs is indeed related to postpartum depression (PPD) symptoms so a mother who was exposed to more ACEs was likely to report higher levels of PPD symptoms. Unfortunately, women with a history of ACEs are also more likely to stop going to postpartum visits even though they could really benefit from services. 

The exposure to multiple ACEs combined with a disrupted stress response system makes it more difficult to handle emotions after stressful life experiences such as giving birth, which increases the risk for depression. 

We recommend that health-care providers screen for ACEs during prenatal checkups to identify mothers who might be at high risk for developing PPD. Offering more support to guide new mothers so they develop health promoting skills in the postpartum period can also help with PPD prevention efforts, and halt the transfer of intergenerational trauma. This VCU L.I.F.E Study is funded by the Virginia Department of Social Services.