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J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2008 Oct;49(10):1089-98. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2008.01987.x.

Quality of child-parent attachment moderates the impact of antenatal stress on child fearfulness.

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Institute of Reproductive and Developmental Biology, Imperial College London, London, UK.



Animal studies have shown that prenatal stress has persisting effects on several aspects of offspring development; more recent studies show that this effect may be eliminated by positive postnatal rearing. Human studies of prenatal anxiety/stress are now also beginning to document links between antenatal stress/anxiety and behavioural and cognitive development of the child; however, there is no human evidence as to whether the early caregiving environment moderates the effect of antenatal anxiety/stress on child outcomes.


Antenatal and postnatal measures of stress were collected on 123 women who were recruited from an antenatal clinic. Laboratory-based assessment of the children's cognitive development and fearfulness were assessed when the children were aged 17 months. In addition, child-parent attachment quality was assessed using the Strange Situation.


Attachment classification moderated the link between antenatal stress and observed fearfulness. The effect of antenatal stress on fearfulness was most accentuated in children with an Insecure/Resistant attachment classification; the significant antenatal stress x attachment classification interaction held after controlling for postnatal stress and obstetric, social and demographic factors. Attachment did not moderate the effects of antenatal anxiety on cognitive development.


These findings provide the first human evidence that postnatal parenting may moderate the adverse effects of antenatal stress. These results raise developmental questions about the timing and effect of interventions to reduce the adverse effects of antenatal stress exposure.

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