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Keywords:

  • Pregnancy;
  • stress;
  • cortisol;
  • development;
  • glucocorticoids;
  • prenatal;
  • anxiety;
  • depression;
  • infancy;
  • fetal programming

Objective:  Prenatal exposure to inappropriate levels of glucocorticoids (GCs) and maternal stress are putative mechanisms for the fetal programming of later health outcomes. The current investigation examined the influence of prenatal maternal cortisol and maternal psychosocial stress on infant physiological and behavioral responses to stress.

Methods:  The study sample comprised 116 women and their full term infants. Maternal plasma cortisol and report of stress, anxiety and depression were assessed at 15, 19, 25, 31 and 36 + weeks’ gestational age. Infant cortisol and behavioral responses to the painful stress of a heel-stick blood draw were evaluated at 24 hours after birth. The association between prenatal maternal measures and infant cortisol and behavioral stress responses was examined using hierarchical linear growth curve modeling.

Results:  A larger infant cortisol response to the heel-stick procedure was associated with exposure to elevated concentrations of maternal cortisol during the late second and third trimesters. Additionally, a slower rate of behavioral recovery from the painful stress of a heel-stick blood draw was predicted by elevated levels of maternal cortisol early in pregnancy as well as prenatal maternal psychosocial stress throughout gestation. These associations could not be explained by mode of delivery, prenatal medical history, socioeconomic status or child race, sex or birth order.

Conclusions:  These data suggest that exposure to maternal cortisol and psychosocial stress exerts programming influences on the developing fetus with consequences for infant stress regulation.