In view of evidence of in utero glucocorticoid programming, and our prior observation of lower cortisol levels in 9-month-old infants of mothers with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) compared to mothers without PTSD, we undertook an examination of the effect of in utero maternal stress, as determined by PTSD symptom severity, and maternal cortisol levels on behavioral outcomes in the infant.
Methods: Ninety-eight pregnant women directly exposed to the World Trade Center (WTC) collapse on 9/11 provided salivary cortisol samples and completed a PTSD symptom questionnaire and a behavior rating scale to measure infant temperament, including distress to limitations, and response to novelty.
Results: Mothers who developed PTSD in response to 9/11 had lower morning and evening salivary cortisol levels, compared to mothers who did not develop PTSD. Maternal morning cortisol levels were inversely related to their rating of infant distress and response to novelty (i.e., loud noises, new foods, unfamiliar people). Also, mothers who had PTSD rated their infants as having greater distress to novelty than did mothers without PTSD (t = 2.77, df = 61, P = 0.007).
Conclusion: Longitudinal studies are needed to determine how the association between maternal PTSD symptoms and cortisol levels and infant temperament reflect genetic and/or epigenetic mechanisms of intergenerational transmission.