Prenatal alcohol exposure and infant negative affect as precursors of depressive features in children


  • Mary J. O'Connor

    Corresponding author
    1. University of California at Los Angeles
    2. Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science
    • Department of Psychiatry, UCLA School of Medicine, Rm 68-265A, Neuropsychiatric Institute, 760 Westwood Plaza, Los Angeles, CA 90024; phone: (310) 206-6528; fax: (310) 825-2682; e-mail:
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    • I would like to thank Alyssa LaFosse for her assistance in manuscript preparation and Don Guthrie for statistical consultation. Special thanks go to the mothers and children who participated in this research.


This study examined the continuity of negative temperamental variations from infancy to early childhood. Also examined was the association of prenatal alcohol exposure with negative affect in infancy and with depressive features in early childhood. Participants were 41 6-year-old children who were followed longitudinally from 1 year of age. Infant negative affect was observed and behaviorally assessed at 1 year, and child depressive symptoms were measured at 6 years using a self-report questionnaire. Results revealed continuity between infant negative affect and early childhood depressive symptoms. In addition, prenatal alcohol exposure appeared to be a significant risk factor in the development of depressive features through both its direct association with child outcome and its indirect effect on infant negative affect. Children with higher levels of prenatal alcohol exposure, who exhibited higher levels of negative affect at 1 year, reported more depressive symptoms at 6 years. This effect was observed primarily in girls. Results suggest one mechanism by which children exposed to alcohol in utero might be predisposed to display higher levels of negative emotionality in infancy placing them at greater risk for depression in early childhood. Continuity of negative affect and depressive symptoms in prenatally exposed youngsters suggests that interventions could begin in infancy and could be targeted specifically at negative child behaviors.  © 2001 Michigan Association for Infant Mental Health.