Maternal Depression and Cortisol in Pregnancy Predict Offspring Emotional Reactivity in the Preschool Period

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College of Arts Humanities and Social Sciences, Psychology


Prenatal exposures to higher levels of maternal cortisol and depression have been linked to a variety of adverse physiological, neurological, and behavioral outcomes, such as dysregulated cortisol production, structural and functional differences in limbic areas of the brain, and greater negative emotionality. This study investigated prospective associations between maternal prepartum depression/cortisol levels and offspring emotional reactivity in 163 mother–child pairs. Women were assessed repeatedly during pregnancy, and later participated in a laboratory visit with their preschool‐aged children. Mothers self‐reported on depressive symptomatology during pregnancy and provided saliva samples for cortisol assay. Offspring emotional reactivity was assessed through multiple measures, including caregiver reports, cortisol response following a stressor, and laboratory observations of behavior. The findings suggest potential prenatal timing effects, with depression and maternal cortisol measured in the first and second trimesters being more strongly associated with child emotional reactivity. Sex was found to moderate associations between maternal prepartum depression/cortisol and child emotional reactivity, with the general pattern reflecting positive associations in girls, and negative associations in boys.

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