Higher maternal prenatal cortisol and younger age predict greater infant reactivity to novelty at 4 months: An observation-based study

Elizabeth Werner, Yihong Zhao, Lynn Evans, Michael Kinsella, Laura Kurzius, Arman Altincatal, Laraine Mcdonough, Catherine Monk

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


Distress-linked activation of the maternal hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA)-axis is considered a pathway by which affect regulation impacts the fetal milieu and neurodevelopment. There is little direct evidence for this conceptual model. In 103 women [mean age 27.45 (±5.65) years] at 36-38 weeks gestation, salivary cortisol was measured before/after stress tasks; distress questionnaires were completed. At 18.49 (±1.83) weeks, infants underwent the Harvard Infant Behavioral Reactivity Protocol assessing cry/motor responses to novelty; women reported on infant behavior and postnatal distress. Prenatal cortisol and distress were not significantly correlated (all ps>.10). Proportional odds logistic regressions showed that neither prenatal nor postnatal distress was associated with infant responses to the Harvard Protocol yet pre-stress cortisol and maternal age were: The odds of being classified as High Reactive were 1.60 times higher [95% CI: 1.04, 2.46] for each unit of added cortisol and .90 times lower [95% CI: .82, .99] for every additional year in maternal age. No associations were found between cortisol or prenatal distress and mother-rated infant behavior; postnatal distress was positively associated with mother-rated infant negative behavior (p=.03). Observer and mother-rated infant behavior were not associated (all ps>.05). Based on independent observations of infants in contrast to maternal perceptions, these results lend support to the hypothesis that pregnant women's HPA-axis activity influences infant behavior. The impact of maternal distress was not supported, except in so far as postnatal distress may increase the likelihood of making negative judgments about infant behavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)707-718
Number of pages12
JournalDevelopmental Psychobiology
Issue number7
StatePublished - Nov 2013
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • Developmental Biology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


  • Distress
  • Infant reactivity
  • Neurodevelopment
  • Prenatal


Dive into the research topics of 'Higher maternal prenatal cortisol and younger age predict greater infant reactivity to novelty at 4 months: An observation-based study'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this