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Physiol Behav. 2017 Jun 1;175:31-36. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2017.03.017. Epub 2017 Mar 16.

Maternal prenatal cortisol predicts infant negative emotionality in a sex-dependent manner.

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School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences, University of Reading, Reading, UK; Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK. Electronic address:
Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, Kings College London, London, UK. Electronic address:
Department of Psychological Sciences, Institute of Psychology, Health and Society, Liverpool, UK. Electronic address:
Institute of Reproductive and Developmental Biology, Imperial College London, London, UK. Electronic address:
Douglas Hospital Research Centre, McGill University, Montreal, Canada; Canadian Institute For Advanced Research, Child and Brain Development Program, Ontario, Canada. Electronic address:
Institute of Child Development, Bucharest, Romania. Electronic address:
School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences, University of Reading, Reading, UK. Electronic address:



Prenatal stress influences fetal developmental trajectories, which may implicate glucocorticoid mechanisms. There is also emerging evidence that effects of prenatal stress on offspring development are sex-dependent. However, little is known about the prospective relationship between maternal prenatal cortisol levels and infant behaviour, and whether it may be different in male and female infants. We sought to address this question using data from a prospective longitudinal cohort, stratified by risk.


The Wirral Child Health and Development Study (WCHADS) cohort (n=1233) included a stratified random sub-sample (n=216) who provided maternal saliva samples, assayed for cortisol, at home over two days at 32weeks of pregnancy (on waking, 30-min post-waking and during the evening) and a measure of infant negative emotionality from the Neonatal Behavioural Assessment Scale (NBAS) at five weeks-of-age. General population estimates of associations among measures were obtained using inverse probability weights.


Maternal prenatal cortisol sampled on waking predicted infant negative emotionality in a sex-dependent manner (interaction term, p=0.005); female infants exposed to high levels of prenatal cortisol were more negative (Beta=0.440, p=0.042), whereas male infants were less negative (Beta=-0.407, p=0.045). There was no effect of the 30-min post-waking measure or evening cortisol.


Our findings add to an emerging body of work that has highlighted sex differences in fetal programming, whereby females become more reactive following prenatal stress, and males less reactive. A more complete understanding of sex-specific developmental trajectories in the context of prenatal stress is essential for the development of targeted prevention strategies.


Cortisol; Fetal programming; Infant behaviour; Prenatal stress; Sex differences

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