Fetal programming by maternal stress: Insights from a conflict perspective

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2012 Oct;37(10):1614-29. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2012.05.014. Epub 2012 Jun 12.


Maternal stress during pregnancy has pervasive effects on the offspring's physiology and behavior, including the development of anxious, reactive temperament and increased stress responsivity. These outcomes can be seen as the result of adaptive developmental plasticity: maternal stress hormones carry useful information about the state of the external world, which can be used by the developing fetus to match its phenotype to the predicted environment. This account, however, neglects the inherent conflict of interest between mother and fetus about the outcomes of fetal programming. The aim of this paper is to extend the adaptive model of prenatal stress by framing mother-fetus interactions in an evolutionary conflict perspective. In the paper, I show how a conflict perspective provides many new insights in the functions and mechanisms of fetal programming, with particular emphasis on human pregnancy. I then take advantage of those insights to make sense of some puzzling features of maternal and fetal physiology and generate novel empirical predictions.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Conflict, Psychological*
  • Female
  • Fetal Development / genetics
  • Fetal Development / physiology*
  • Genomic Imprinting
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Maternal-Fetal Relations*
  • Pregnancy
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*