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Background: Accumulating evidence indicates that prenatal maternal and fetal processes can have a lasting influence on infant and child development. Results from animal models indicate that prenatal exposure to maternal stress and stress hormones has lasting consequences for development of the offspring. Few prospective studies of human pregnancy have examined the consequences of prenatal exposure to stress and stress hormones.

Method: In this study the effects of prenatal maternal psychosocial (anxiety, depression, and perceived stress) and endocrine (cortisol) indicators of stress on infant temperament were examined in a sample of 247 full-term infants. Maternal salivary cortisol and psychological state were evaluated at 18-20, 24-26, and 30-32 weeks of gestation and at 2 months postpartum. Infant temperament was assessed with a measure of negative reactivity (the fear subscale of the Infant Temperament Questionnaire) at 2 months of age.

Results: Elevated maternal cortisol at 30-32 weeks of gestation, but not earlier in pregnancy, was significantly associated with greater maternal report of infant negative reactivity. Prenatal maternal anxiety and depression additionally predicted infant temperament. The associations between maternal cortisol and maternal depression remained after controlling for postnatal maternal psychological state.

Conclusions: These data suggest that prenatal exposure to maternal stress has consequences for the development of infant temperament.

Copyright 2007 (C) American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry