Reproductive development and parental investment during pregnancy: Moderating influence of mother's early environment


  • David A. Coall,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Psychology, University of Basel, Switzerland
    • Community, Culture and Mental Health Unit, School of Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, University of Western Australia. Fremantle Hospital, W Block, L6, 1 Alma Street, Fremantle, Western Australia 6160, Australia
    Search for more papers by this author
  • James S. Chisholm

    1. School of Anatomy and Human Biology, University of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, Australia
    Search for more papers by this author


The association between a woman's age at menarche and the birth weight of her children is highly variable across human populations. Life history theory proposes that a woman's early environment may moderate this association and thus account for some of the variation between populations. According to one life history theory model, for individuals who develop in a childhood environment of high local mortality rates (experienced subjectively as psychosocial stress), it can be adaptive to mature earlier, have more offspring during their reproductive lifetime, and reduce investment in each offspring. In an environment of low psychosocial stress, however, it may be adaptive to mature later, have fewer offspring, and invest more in each. In this study, birth weight and proportionate birth weight (neonate's birth weight as a percentage of its mother's prepregnancy weight) were used as measures of parental investment during pregnancy. In a sample of 580 first-time mothers, we tested the hypothesis that the psychosocial stress experienced as a child would moderate the association between age at menarche and investment during pregnancy. We found that earlier menarche in those women who experienced stressful life events before 15 years of age was associated with a lower birth weight and proportionate birth weight. Conversely, in those who reported no childhood stressors, earlier menarche was associated with increased birth weight and proportionate birth weight. Our data suggest that the moderating influence of the childhood psychosocial environment on the association between age at menarche and parental investment throughout gestation operates in a dose-dependent manner. Am. J. Hum. Biol., 2010. © 2009 Wiley-Liss, Inc.