Maternal depression and infant cortisol: influences of timing, comorbidity and treatment

J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2008 Oct;49(10):1099-107. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2008.01914.x. Epub 2008 May 19.


Background: The current study examines the relationship between maternal depression and infant cortisol concentrations. The potential roles of comorbid maternal anxiety disorders, timing of maternal depression, and maternal treatment with psychotropic medications during pregnancy are addressed.

Methods: Women with 6-month-old infants (105 boys and 84 girls) participated in a laboratory paradigm that included infant saliva collection at six points, noise burst and arm restraint stressor tasks, and a diagnostic interview of the mother.

Results: Lifetime history of maternal depression was associated with increased baseline and mean (average) infant cortisol levels. Comorbidity with anxiety disorder was related to infant cortisol reactivity. Peripartum (prepartum and/or postpartum) maternal depression, rather than a pre-pregnancy history of disorder, was associated with higher infant cortisol reactivity. Prenatal and postnatal exposure to maternal disorder had similar effects, but prenatal maternal psychotropic medication treatment appeared to attenuate infant cortisol increases associated with prenatal maternal disorder exposure.

Conclusions: These data suggest that exposure to maternal depression and anxiety during pregnancy and the postpartum period may increase infant salivary cortisol. This maternal depression-infant cortisol association is independent of the effects of delivery complications, and appears to be modulated by prenatal maternal psychotropic treatment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anxiety / drug therapy
  • Anxiety / epidemiology
  • Biomarkers / metabolism
  • Child of Impaired Parents*
  • Comorbidity
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Depressive Disorder* / drug therapy
  • Depressive Disorder* / epidemiology
  • Female
  • Georgia / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism*
  • Infant
  • Mothers / psychology*
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects
  • Psychotropic Drugs / adverse effects
  • Psychotropic Drugs / therapeutic use
  • Regression Analysis
  • Saliva
  • Time Factors


  • Biomarkers
  • Psychotropic Drugs
  • Hydrocortisone