Links between ABEs and chronic illness are more important than most of us – including health professionals – recognize.
Adverse babyhood experiences (ABEs) refer to trauma in a mother’s life and to stressful experiences before and after conception. ABEs also include stressful and traumatic events for mothers, fathers & babies during pregnancy, birth and until a child’s 3rd birthday.
The science now helps make sense of what mothers, fathers, midwives and other health care professionals, have long known through direct experience.
This page offers a short introduction to the new construct I refer to as Adverse Babyhood Experiences (ABEs). For more detail, read my comprehensive guide or download my fact sheets, ebook, journal article and more below
ABEs increase risk for disease and mental illness later in life and in future generations.
This post and the ABEs fact sheet help make sense of early risk factors for chronic illness in order to prevent and or repair their effects. This is the short version (here’s the comprehensive guide).
Like ACEs (adverse childhood experiences), understanding ABEs offers hope because it is possible to heal the impact of difficult or missing experiences that happened in early life, even if you are an adult or the parent of an adult.
It’s also possible to repair and heal even if these events happened in your mother or father’s life. See my post on tools and therapies for healing nervous system perceptions of threat and a detailed post on healing multigenerational trauma.
10 Categories of ABEs
This is the outline list of ABEs and does not include all possible adverse events. Get a more detailed in the comprehensive guide and fact sheets.
- 1. Maternal Loss or Trauma
- 2. Lack or Loss of Support for Mother
- 3. Maternal Emotional Stressors
- 4. Maternal Physical Stressors
- 5. Maternal Experiences of Labor & Birth
- 6. Baby Experiences at Birth
- 7. High or Low Birth Weight
- 8. Baby Did Not or Could Not Breastfeed
- 9. Baby Separation: Incubator, NICU, Hospital Stay, Adoption, Foster Care
- 10. Symptoms in Mother or Baby After Discharge
ABEs and Chronic illness: Potential Risk Factors
- Mother had preeclampsia / toxemia during pregnancy
- Being born prematurely
- Being a twin or triplet
- Circumcision or other surgery in the first year or two of life
- Hospitalization as a baby or toddler
- Incubator care
- Maternal ACEs (adverse childhood experiences)
- Frequent infections as a baby
- Separation of parents and baby, such as immediately after birth (whether routine or such as for NICU care, etc)
Note that this is only a partial list of ABEs. See the detailed post (or download the fact sheet or ebook) for more information and examples.
ABEs are about repair because there is no such thing as perfection in the process of preparing for or giving birth, in being a parent, or in supporting families during their first steps and early years.
The effects of ABEs are part of an emerging new paradigm of disease in which research reveals how life experiences influence gene function, shape nervous system and immune system development (and that of all organ systems), may initiate the cell danger response, and much more.
Understanding ABEs aims to correct and update the mistaken belief that effects of trauma are a mother, father or even a baby’s fault.
ABEs science removes blame, shame and judgement so we can identify risk factors to either do things differently because we are informed, or heal the effects of what happened because we can recognize them.
More than 50% of adults and 8% of children live with one or more chronic illnesses. Rates of disease are rising at epidemic rates in many countries. ABEs are a risk factor for diseases of all kinds.
ABEs are also a risk factor for maternal mortality and illness related to pregnancy and birth, as well as for infant mortality and illness. Here in the US our mortality rates are higher than in any other developed country. African American women and women from other minority groups have astronomically higher rates of mortality that are similar to what is found in developing countries.
NPR provides a detailed overview of these maternal mortality statistics and refers to it is “A Public Health Catastrophe.”
Understanding trauma and addressing ABEs, as Florida midwife Jenni Joseph does in her clinic, can actually correct these problems during pregnancy to bring levels of maternal and infant health at par with the best of statistics we have.
Healing ABEs can also decrease symptoms of chronic disease and potentially even cure illness. Learn more, get my story and hear about the story of a 9 year old whose asthma was cured by addressing ABEs in this post on ABEs and asthma.
ACEs and ABEs
I’ve coined the term for this important and often under-recognized category of adversity by drawing from the field of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) for 5 reasons:
- ABEs reflect a different set of risk factors than ACEs
- ABES can increase risk for ACEs
- ABEs awareness provides additional choices to empower parents, patients, and health care professionals
- There is a large body of evidence explaining ABEs risk factors independent of ACEs
- Understanding ABEs offers tools for prevention, early detection of risk for disease, and treatment
Book 4: ABEs and Chronic Illness +
A free ebook with 5 blog posts introducing ABEs and chronic illness with posts on how ABEs affect risk for asthma, autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, and more. Available in pdf and kindle formats.
Additional ABEs Posts
Comprehensive guide to ABEs (with a free download)
ABEs Resource page (most up-to-date page with other downloadable articles, my ecourse on ABEs, tools and therapies, and more)
ABEs and Type 1 Diabetes and other Autoimmune Diseases
ABEs Science: Introduction to the Fetal Origins of Adult Disease (FOAD) studies and risk for chronic illness
ABE Fact Sheets
The form will appear momentarily.
The FACT SHEETS summarize ABEs. Print the ABEs overview on one side and the list of references on the other to provide a one pager to give to doctors and others. Additional pages give details on the types of events for each ABE.
- Fact sheets include:
- 1 page introduction
- 1 page summary of ABEs, the research
- 1 page of references
- Example list of ABEs
- Example of an optimal birth
- Resources for support and healing
My ABEs Journal Article (2020)
A detailed journal article introducing the construct of ABEs. A good resource to give to your family doctor, OB/GYN, midwife, pediatrician, hospital department and others.
Thank you to the Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health (JOPPPAH) for permission to make my article available here for a free download.
The citation for the article is:
Mead, V. P. (2020). “Adverse babyhood experiences (ABEs) increase risk for infant and maternal morbidity and mortality, and chronic illness.” Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health 34(4).
Susan Brown says
I believe that you missed a few effects fro mother and baby. My mother was mentally ill and was a heavy smoker with depression during pregnancy. After birth, she did the basic care but wasn’t affectionate towards me and ignored me. This grew into physical abuse, at only 3 years old. I have struggled most of my life and have been in therapy for years, as I also have depression and CPTSD. I do suffer from chronic illness and appreciate your work.
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Thanks for sharing your huge awareness about your ABEs. Everything you mention has an impact on long-term health and there is good science to support it.
I have a much longer, very detailed post on ABEs that covers many more examples for each ABE. This is in the downloadable ebook. That post addresses what you describe (the ABE called “Emotional Stress” includes maternal mental illness and depression; the ABE called “Physical Stress” includes smoking; a discussion of bonding disruptions, ABE “Separation” and ABE “Maternal Trauma” – talk about lack of affection towards a baby and how that impacts physiology and long term health.
I also write about ACEs (adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which is a growing number of studies that refer to physical abuse as a risk factor for chronic disease). ABEs are a risk factor for ACEs.
Therapy takes time with this degree of trauma. I suspect that many, if not most, of us with chronic illness need quite a long time to begin to heal the effects of such significant exposures that happened early and over long periods of time. I’m so happy to hear you have this big context and wish you well on your journey. Thanks so much for sharing.
Andrew Cook says
I’ve treated babies using CST for almost 20 years, and what I’ve seen is that the baby’s capacity to deal with problems is largely related to the capacity of the adults that are caring for it to
(1) have a genuinely resilient, positive and optimistic attitude to life, and
(2) to treat the baby right from the very start as a conscious, responsive, intelligent being in its own right (which is the basis for Ray Castellino’s work)
This is, of course, something of a soundbite, but I’ve seen many babies in the above positive situation bounce and brush off major difficulties on that ABE list in a way that babies whose parents are not coping (or who have an excessively medicalised or fearful outlook) do not.
This is not to “blame” the parents, because there are many reasons why they themselves are in that situation in the first place, many of which are generation and societal issues. One of which is a desperately ill-considered fear of death that permeates much of our culture, that ends up harming the living.
But certainly – whatever has happened in those first few hours and months, affects people for the rest of their lives. The wonderful thing is that the body seems to hold a template of wellness that persists, and given the right input, many of these effects are potentially reversible decades later.
Thanks for all the valuable information you’re putting out here
With very best wishes
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Hi Andrew – Yes, parents and other adults around babies act as psychobiological regulators and the research is beginning to validate what so many health practitioners already know, as you do.
The healthier we are as adults and parents – the healthier our babies. It certainly speaks to the need for this information needing to out to health care professionals and to the public – and for books like the one you’re working on!!
Wendy Andrews says
SO good to read, Veronique. In NZ in the 60s, where I was an infant, regimented four hourly feeds were the norm. I believe this to be an ABE….crying alone while hungry AND being fed when not necessarily hungry, from birth. I’m sure you’ve covered this somewhere. I now have type 2 diabetes and am ‘devouring’ everything you have to say on the subject.
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Yes, these are ABEs.I was born in the 1960s as well, when it was also the norm to not pick up babies when they cried. Happy devouring :-) !!
Thank you for this website. Learning about this has taken away some of the shame I’ve felt at being “different” because my trauma leads me to isolate, over react and generally feel apprehensive. What seems to help me the most is talking about the trauma, understanding how it affected me, and why it is normal, not any weakness on my part. I think it would be helpful to have groups where we could go to talk about what happened to us, how we are healing, and meet others who truly understand, having been through it.
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Yes – the more we know and understand about trauma, the many ways it can happen and what it can look like, the more we (as a society, in medicine, individually and beyond) can shift the shame. And, as you describe, it can help us see how our seemingly irregular responses in our bodies, emotions, physiologies and elsewhere are not only normal but at one time helped us survive very difficult experiences. I agree with you about the recipes for healing – connection with ourselves (through telling our stories and recognizing what happened) and connection with others is a powerful component to healing. If you haven’t heard of them, you could look into PACEs Connection as a potential a resource community that shares news, articles, resources, talks, conversations, conferences, education and more about trauma and healing. All the best to you on this journey and thank you for writing.