Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Intimate partner abuse before and during pregnancy as risk factors for postpartum mental health problems

Sarah L Desmarais1*, Ashley Pritchard2, Evan M Lowder1 and Patricia A Janssen3

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Psychology, North Carolina State University, Campus Box 7650, Raleigh NC 27695-7650, USA

2 Department of Psychology, Simon Fraser University, 8888 University Drive Burnaby, British Columbia V5A 1S6, Canada

3 UBC School of Population and Public Health, 2206 East Mall Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z3, Canada

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BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth 2014, 14:132  doi:10.1186/1471-2393-14-132

Published: 7 April 2014



Although research has established the profound effects that intimate partner abuse can have on postpartum mental health, little is known regarding how this association may change as a function of the timing and type of abuse. This study examined associations of psychological, physical and sexual abuse experienced as adults before and during pregnancy with symptoms of postpartum mental health problems in a non-clinical sample of women.


English-speaking mothers aged 18 years and older in the metropolitan area of a large, Western Canadian city were recruited to participate in a study of women’s health after pregnancy. The study was advertised in hospitals, local newspapers, community venues, and relevant websites. One-hundred women completed standardized, self-report questionnaires during semi-structured interviews conducted by female research assistants at approximately 2 months postpartum. In addition to questions about their general health and well-being, participants answered questions about their experiences of intimate partner abuse and about their mental health during the postpartum period.


Almost two-thirds (61.0%) of women reported postpartum mental health symptoms above normal levels, with 47.0% reporting symptoms at moderate or higher levels. The majority reported some form of intimate partner abuse before pregnancy (84.0%) and more than two-thirds (70.0%), during pregnancy; however, the abuse was typically minor in nature. Multivariate models revealed that women who experienced intimate partner abuse—whether before or during pregnancy—reported higher levels of postpartum mental health problems; however, associations differed as a function of the timing and type of abuse, as well as specific mental health symptoms. Multivariate models also showed that as the number of types of intimate partner abuse experienced increased, so did the negative effects on postpartum mental health.


Results of this study provide further evidence that intimate partner abuse is a risk factor for postpartum mental health problems. They also underscore the complex risks and needs associated with intimate partner abuse among postpartum women and support the use of integrated approaches to treating postpartum mental health problems. Future efforts should focus on the extent to which strategies designed to reduce intimate partner abuse also improve postpartum mental health and vice versus.

Intimate partner abuse; Psychological aggression; Physical assault; Sexual coercion; Postpartum mental health; Stress; Anxiety; Depression; Obsessive-compulsive disorder; Posttraumatic stress disorder