Risk of childhood injuries after prenatal exposure to maternal bereavement: a Danish National Cohort Study

BMJ Open. 2013 Apr 22;3(4):e002357. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2012-002357. Print 2013.


Objectives: The aim of this study was to assess the risk of injuries among children exposed to a stressful life exposure (defined as bereavement) before conception or during fetal life.

Design: Population-based cohort study.

Setting: Denmark.

Participants: All singleton births in Denmark between 1 January 1995 and 31 December 2006 were identified. These newborns were then linked to mothers, fathers, grandparents and siblings using individually assigned civil personal registration numbers.

Primary and secondary outcome measures: We identified that data on childhood injuries were obtained from the Danish National Patient Registry, which contains data on all hospital stays and outpatient visits. Incidence rate ratios (IRRs) were estimated from birth using log-linear Poisson regression models, and person-years were used as the offset variable. Age, residence, calendar period, maternal education, maternal income and parental-cohabitation status are treated as time-dependent variables (records were extracted from the offspring's birth year).

Results: Exposure to maternal bereavement due to a father's death had the strongest association with childhood injuries, especially when the cause of death was due to a traumatic event (adjusted estimates of IRR (aIRR): 1.25, 95%CI: 0.99 to 1.58). We did not find an association for childhood injuries and maternal bereavement due to grandparent's death, and we only found an association for sibling death when restricting to deaths due to traumatic events (aIRR: 1.20, 95%CI:1.03 to 1.39).

Conclusions: The aetiology of childhood injuries is complex and may be related to events that take place during prenatal life. This study suggests that exposure to a stressful life event during gestation may be linked to injury susceptibility in childhood. However, changes in postnatal family conditions related to loss or genetic factors may also play a role.

Background: Developmental plasticity related to early life exposures leading to disease programming in offspring is a theory with substantial theoretical and empirical support. Prenatal stress exposure has been linked to neurological outcomes, such as temperament, behavioural problems, cognitive function and affective disorders. If exposure modifies risk-seeking behaviour, perceived danger and reaction time, it is also expected to modify injury risk.