Prenatal Stress Exposure May Affect Childhood Temperament

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Researchers collected data from a sample of 318 mother-child dyads to examine the effect of Superstorm Sandy on prenatal maternal stress and subsequent early childhood temperament.
Researchers collected data from a sample of 318 mother-child dyads to examine the effect of Superstorm Sandy on prenatal maternal stress and subsequent early childhood temperament.

In utero objective stress exposure and subjective stress reaction may predict developmental trajectories in early childhood temperament, according to findings published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

Researchers collected data from a sample of 318 mother-child dyads (51.3% boys) to examine the effect of Superstorm Sandy on prenatal maternal stress and subsequent early childhood temperament. Per parent-reported questionnaires, researchers measured child temperament at 6, 12, 18, and 24 months of age. "Sandy status," or objective stress exposure, was defined as pregnancy during the storm; subjective stress reaction was assessed using a self-report questionnaire for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Through hierarchical linear modeling, researchers observed a significant predictive effect of objective stress exposure on several aspects of child temperament; at 6 months, in utero Sandy status predicted greater high-intensity pleasure (P =.025), approach (P <.001), fearfulness (P =.022), and perceptual sensitivity (P =.031), as well as lower cuddliness (P =.009) and duration of orientation (P =.050), compared with children without exposure. At age 6 to 24 months, children with in utero exposure showed a greater increase in activity level (P =.026), as well as a greater decrease in high-intensity pleasure (P =.046), approach (P =.008), and fearfulness (P =.009), compared with the control group.

Subjective stress exposure was found to marginally predict the temperamental growth in activity level for the Sandy group (P =.084). A greater subjective stress reaction was associated with a greater increase in activity level from 6 to 24 months compared with a smaller increase associated with lower subjective stress.

These results suggest that an objective exposure to prenatal maternal stress is a strong predictor of emotionally reactive traits in infants, and that disaster-related exposure specifically may be associated with improved coping skills for postnatal environmental risks.

As child temperament was examined solely through maternal report, researchers acknowledged the possibility for inaccurate capturing of clinical features. Even so, these data may be useful in developing care strategies for mothers suffering from stress exposure and in predicting the temperaments of their children.

Reference

Zhang W, Rajendran K, Ham J, et al. Prenatal exposure to disaster-related traumatic stress and developmental trajectories of temperament in early childhood: Superstorm Sandy pregnancy study. J Affect Disord. 2018;234,335-345.

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