Newswise — CINCINNATI – Researchers at Cincinnati Children’s report in the journal Pediatrics a link between parents impacted by adverse childhood experiences and increased risk for delayed development of their children at age two.

The retrospective study reviewed the data of 311 mother-child pairs and 122 father-child pairs treated at a large pediatric primary care practice (study collaborators The Children’s Clinic, Portland, Ore.) The children were born between October 2012 and June 2014.

“Pediatricians have an important role in working with families to prevent delayed cognitive and social-emotional development. Asking parents about their adverse childhood experiences could be an important step towards early interventions and supporting optimal child development,” said lead investigator Ted Folger, PhD, a scientist in the Division of Biostatistics and Epidemiology.

Folger and his colleagues conduct research to improve child health by looking at the long-term impact of the environment or lifestyle on health, disease and intergenerational influences on child health. Collaborators on the current study include scientists and physicians, including members of the Department of Pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s. The research also supports the mission of the medical center’s Every Child Succeeds program, which promotes positive parenting and healthy child development.

The study reports that three or more adverse childhood experiences for a parent was associated with significantly increased risk for a suspected developmental delay. Researchers also found that each additional maternal adverse childhood experience (ACE) was associated with an 18 percent risk increase.

Toxic Stress, Epigenetics and Biology

Toxic stress fueled in part by childhood emotional trauma has been identified as an important public health issue, including in pediatrics care. Parents who undergo early childhood trauma may have difficulty with certain aspects of parenting. Still, little is really known about the association between early life adversity for parents and effects on the development of their children.

The current study only establishes an association between the two. Folger and his colleagues now want to explore how toxic stress can contribute to epigenetic changes in parents and their children, the potential biological consequences and underlying molecular components. Epigenetics is the study of how environmental exposures and stresses on the body can impact genetic and resulting biological activity. 

“We are just beginning to learn how these early life insults may have intergenerational implications and how this transmission of risk may occur through multiple pathways,” said Folger.

Funding support for the study came from the Mayerson Center for Safe and Healthy Children at Cincinnati Children’s.