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Staunching Aggression From the Womb

• March 04, 2011 • 1:00 PM

Government investment in prenatal and postnatal health care could help prevent violent behavior later in life, researcher says.

Crime and delinquency have roots in the womb, and so the risks can and should be addressed early on, even before a child is born, a University of Pennsylvania researcher says.

According to a large body of research, the early risk factors that may predispose a child to violence include teen pregnancy, birth complications, lead exposure, head injury, child abuse, and maternal stress and depression. Jianghong Liu, an assistant professor at Penn’s School of Nursing and School of Medicine, argues that these factors, whether biological, psychological or environmental, can interact with each other early on, increasing the odds of a lifetime of violent behavior.

“We can do something about it,” Liu said. “It’s not that expensive, compared to the money government puts into prisons. Why not spend the money on prenatal care or on developing a parenting skill? I’m confident parents would like it.”

Current theories on violence and aggression focus on the risks for adolescents. Liu makes the case for implementing prevention programs during the prenatal period and first three years of a child’s life — and even before conception — to head off the possibility of early brain dysfunction and later aggression.

“It is never too early to intervene,” she said. “The brain undergoes the most critical development in children in the first 36 months. Since all behavior is regulated by the brain, therefore early intervention is important.”

Liu cites a number of studies showing that the fetus and the infant child are highly vulnerable to maternal smoking, maternal mental health problems, maternal drug and alcohol use, lead exposure, malnutrition and domestic violence in the home — and that these influences can lead to brain dysfunction, low IQ and a lifetime of antisocial and criminal behavior.

In earlier research, Liu has shown that birth complications are linked with behavioral problems in 11-year-olds. Other studies by Liu suggest that malnutrition and deficiencies in protein, zinc, iron and omega-3 fatty acids can disturb brain functioning and predispose children to misbehave. Other researchers have shown that maternal depression and poor child-rearing behavior can predispose children to act out aggressively.

To prevent patterns of violence from developing, Liu said, a national public health program could include a free and mandatory course for future parents about pre- and postnatal nutrition, and the risks of smoking and drug and alcohol abuse. Prospective and expecting mothers could be screened for substance use and referred to treatment programs, she said.

Monthly home visits by nurses during pregnancy and early childhood also could help reduce problems later on, Liu said. Such home visits through age 2 have been linked to fewer behavioral problems — including running away, using drugs and alcohol, and getting suspended or arrested — in 15-year-olds.

Finally, Liu said, Early Head Start programs could be expanded to help stimulate learning during the most critical window for brain development, before the age of 3.

“I truly believe that if we invest early, we can deal with the big problems in society,” she said.

 

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Melinda Burns
Former Miller-McCune staff writer Melinda Burns was previously a senior writer for the Santa Barbara News-Press, covering immigration, urban planning, science, and the environment.

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