Using fathers as a negative control exposure to test the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease Hypothesis: A case study on maternal distress and offspring asthma using Swedish register data

Scand J Public Health. 2017 Jul;45(17_suppl):36-40. doi: 10.1177/1403494817702324.


Background: Developmental Origins of Health and Disease Hypothesis (DOHaD) studies are often observational in nature and are therefore prone to biases from loss to follow-up and unmeasured confounding. Register-based studies can reduce these issues since they allow almost complete follow-up and provide information on fathers that can be used in a negative control analysis to assess the impact of unmeasured confounding.

Aim: The aim of this study was to propose a causal model for testing DOHaD using paternal exposure as a negative control, and its application to maternal distress in pregnancy and offspring asthma.

Methods: A causal diagram including shared and parent-specific measured and unmeasured confounders for maternal (fetal) and paternal exposures is proposed. The case study consisted of all children born in Sweden from July 2006 to December 2008 ( n=254,150). Information about childhood asthma, parental distress and covariates was obtained from the Swedish national health registers. Associations between maternal and paternal distress during pregnancy and offspring asthma at age five years were assessed separately and with mutual adjustment for the other parent's distress measure, as well as for shared confounders.

Results: Maternal distress during pregnancy was associated with offspring asthma risk; mutually adjusted odds ratio (OR) (OR 1.32, 95% CI 1.23, 1.43). The mutually adjusted paternal distress-offspring asthma analysis (OR 1.05, 95% CI 0.97, 1.13) indicated no evidence for unmeasured confounding shared by the mother and father.

Conclusions: Using paternal exposure in a negative control model to test the robustness of fetal programming hypotheses can be a relatively simple extension of conventional observational studies but limitations need to be considered.

Keywords: Developmental Origins of Health and Disease Hypothesis; Negative control; asthma; epidemiology; fetal programming; maternal distress.

MeSH terms

  • Asthma / epidemiology*
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Child, Preschool
  • Fathers / psychology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mothers / psychology*
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / epidemiology*
  • Registries
  • Risk Factors
  • Stress, Psychological / epidemiology*
  • Sweden / epidemiology