Prenatal anxiety predicts individual differences in cortisol in pre-adolescent children

Biol Psychiatry. 2005 Aug 1;58(3):211-7. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2005.03.032.


Background: Animal studies suggest that prenatal stress is associated with long-term disturbance in hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis function, but evidence in humans is lacking. This study examined the long-term association between prenatal anxiety and measures of diurnal cortisol at age 10 years.

Methods: Measures of cortisol were collected at awakening, 30 min after awakening, and at 4 pm and 9 pm on 3 consecutive days in a sample of 10-year-olds (n = 74) from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, a prospective longitudinal cohort study of mothers and children on whom measures of anxiety and depression were collected in pregnancy and the postpartum period. Analyses examined the links between symptoms of prenatal anxiety and multiple indicators of cortisol, an index of HPA axis functioning.

Results: Prenatal anxiety was significantly associated with individual differences in awakening and afternoon cortisol after accounting for obstetric and sociodemographic risk (partial correlations were .32 and .25, p < .05). The effect for awakening cortisol remained significant after controlling for multiple postnatal assessments of maternal anxiety and depression.

Conclusions: This study provides the first human evidence that prenatal anxiety might have lasting effects on HPA axis functioning in the child and that prenatal anxiety might constitute a mechanism for an increased vulnerability to psychopathology in children and adolescents.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Anxiety / metabolism*
  • Child
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism*
  • Individuality*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Maternal Behavior / psychology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • Postpartum Period / metabolism
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications / metabolism
  • Pregnancy Complications / psychology*
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Reference Values
  • Regression Analysis
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Saliva / metabolism
  • Time Factors
  • Wakefulness / physiology


  • Hydrocortisone