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The Timing of Prenatal Exposure to Maternal Cortisol and Psychosocial Stress Is Associated With Human Infant Cognitive Development


  • This research was supported by a grant from the NIH (NS-41298). The authors wish to thank the families who participated in this project. The assistance of Cheryl Crippen and Carol Holliday is gratefully acknowledged.

concerning this article should be addressed to Elysia Davis, 333 City Boulevard West, Suite 1200, Orange, CA 92868. Electronic mail may be sent to


The consequences of prenatal maternal stress for development were examined in 125 full-term infants at 3, 6, and 12 months of age. Maternal cortisol and psychological state were evaluated 5 times during pregnancy. Exposure to elevated concentrations of cortisol early in gestation was associated with a slower rate of development over the 1st year and lower mental development scores at 12 months. Elevated levels of maternal cortisol late in gestation, however, were associated with accelerated cognitive development and higher scores at 12 months. Elevated levels of maternal pregnancy-specific anxiety early in pregnancy were independently associated with lower 12-month mental development scores. These data suggest that maternal cortisol and pregnancy-specific anxiety have programming influences on the developing fetus.