Maternal age at childbirth and offspring disruptive behaviors: testing the causal hypothesis


  • Conflict of interest statement: No conflicts declared.

Brian M. D’Onofrio, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Indiana University, 1101 E. 10th St., Bloomington, IN 47405, USA; Tel:812-856-0843; Fax:812-856-4544;


Background:  Recent studies suggest that the association between maternal age at childbearing (MAC) and children’s disruptive behaviors is the result of family factors that are confounded with both variables, rather than a casual effect of environmental factors specifically related to MAC. These studies, however, relied on restricted samples and did not use the strongest approach to test causal influences.

Methods:  Using data on 9,171 4–9-year-old and 6,592 10–13-year-old offspring of women from a nationally representative sample of US households, we conducted sibling-comparison analyses. The analyses ruled out all genetic factors that could confound the association, as well as all environmental confounds that differ between unrelated nuclear families, providing a strong test of the causal hypothesis that the environments of children born at different maternal ages influence mother- and self-reported disruptive behaviors.

Results:  When these genetic and environmental confounds were ruled out as alternative explanations, the relation between environments within nuclear families specifically associated with MAC and disruptive behaviors was robust, with the association being stronger for second- and third-born children.

Conclusions:  Environmental factors specifically associated with early MAC within nuclear families account for increased risk of offspring disruptive behaviors, especially in later-born children.