Background: Exposure to prenatal stress is associated with later adverse health and adjustment outcomes. This is generally presumed to arise through early environmentally mediated programming effects on the foetus. However, associations could arise through factors that influence mothers' characteristics and behaviour during pregnancy which are inherited by offspring.
Method: A 'prenatal cross-fostering' design where pregnant mothers are related or unrelated to their child as a result of in vitro fertilization (IVF) was used to disentangle maternally inherited and environmental influences. If links between prenatal stress and offspring outcome are environmental, association should be observed in unrelated as well as related mother-child pairs. Offspring birth weight and gestational age as well as mental health were the outcomes assessed.
Results: Associations between prenatal stress and offspring birth weight, gestational age and antisocial behaviour were seen in both related and unrelated mother-offspring pairs, consistent with there being environmental links. The association between prenatal stress and offspring anxiety in related and unrelated groups appeared to be due to current maternal anxiety/depression rather than prenatal stress. In contrast, the link between prenatal stress and offspring attention deficit hyperactivity disorder was only present in related mother-offspring pairs and therefore was attributable to inherited factors.
Conclusions: Genetically informative designs can be helpful in testing whether inherited factors contribute to the association between environmental risk factors and health outcomes. These results suggest that associations between prenatal stress and offspring outcomes could arise from inherited factors and post-natal environmental factors in addition to causal prenatal risk effects.