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Keywords:

  • adversity;
  • antenatal;
  • assessment;
  • early life stress;
  • intrauterine;
  • mental disorder;
  • prenatal exposure delayed effects;
  • strain;
  • trauma

Abstract

Background

A growing body of literature documents associations of maternal psychosocial stress during pregnancy with fetal, infant and child behaviour and development. However, findings across studies are often inconsistent, which may in part be due to differences in stress definitions and assessments.

Methods

We systematically reviewed methods applied to assess maternal psychosocial stress during pregnancy in studies looking at associations with biobehavioural outcomes in the offspring. A systematic literature search was performed on Web of Science and PubMed for the time period between January 1999 and October 2009. Psychometric instruments assessing maternal psychosocial stress during pregnancy were identified and described if data on psychometric properties were available.

Results

We identified 115 publications that assessed psychosocial stress during pregnancy with validated methods. These publications applied overall 43 different instruments assessing constructs falling under seven categories, ordered according to their frequency of use: anxiety, depression, daily hassles, aspects of psychological symptomatology (not reduced to anxiety or depression), life events, specific socio-environmental stressors and stress related to pregnancy and parenting. If available, we provide information on validity and reliability of the instruments for samples of pregnant women.

Conclusions

Within the ‘prenatal stress’ research, a broad range of instruments is applied to assess psychosocial stress during pregnancy. Prenatal stress research should take into consideration that the variety of methods in use might hamper the comparability of stress research results. In each category of stress constructs, one instrument with good psychometric properties in pregnant women is highlighted as the best currently available measure.