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J Adolesc Health. 2012 Aug;51(2 Suppl):S3-8. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2012.04.008.

Maternal stress in pregnancy: considerations for fetal development.

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Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland 21205, USA.


There is significant current interest in the degree to which prenatal exposures, including maternal psychological factors, influence child outcomes. Studies that detect an association between prenatal maternal psychological distress and child developmental outcomes are subject to a number of interpretative challenges in the inference of causality. Some of these are common to many types of prenatal exposures that must necessarily rely on observational designs. Such challenges include the correlation between prenatal and postnatal exposures and the potential role of other sources of shared influence, such as genetic factors. Others are more specific to this area of research. These include confounding between maternal report of child outcomes and the maternal psychological attributes under study, difficulties in distinguishing maternal stress from more ubiquitous aspects of maternal personality, and the lack of association between cortisol and measures of maternal psychological stress. This article considers these methodological issues and offers an additional methodology focused on fetal neurobehavior for discerning potential mechanisms that may mediate associations between maternal psychological functioning and the developing fetal nervous system.

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