Childhood developmental vulnerabilities associated with early life exposure to infectious and noninfectious diseases and maternal mental illness

J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2018 Jul;59(7):801-810. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.12856. Epub 2017 Dec 26.


Background: Fetal exposure to infectious and noninfectious diseases may influence early childhood developmental functioning, on the path to later mental illness. Here, we investigated the effects of in utero exposure to maternal infection and noninfectious diseases during pregnancy on offspring developmental vulnerabilities at age 5 years, in the context of estimated effects for early childhood exposures to infectious and noninfectious diseases and maternal mental illness.

Methods: We used population data for 66,045 children from an intergenerational record linkage study (the New South Wales Child Development Study), for whom a cross-sectional assessment of five developmental competencies (physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and communication) was obtained at school entry, using the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC). Child and maternal exposures to infectious or noninfectious diseases were determined from the NSW Ministry of Health Admitted Patients Data Collection (APDC) and maternal mental illness exposure was derived from both APDC and Mental Health Ambulatory Data collections. Multinomial logistic regression analyses were used to examine unadjusted and adjusted associations between these physical and mental health exposures and child developmental vulnerabilities at age 5 years.

Results: Among the physical disease exposures, maternal infectious diseases during pregnancy and early childhood infection conferred the largest associations with developmental vulnerabilities at age 5 years; maternal noninfectious illness during pregnancy also retained small but significant associations with developmental vulnerabilities even when adjusted for other physical and mental illness exposures and covariates known to be associated with early childhood development (e.g., child's sex, socioeconomic disadvantage, young maternal age, prenatal smoking). Among all exposures examined, maternal mental illness first diagnosed prior to childbirth conferred the greatest odds of developmental vulnerability at age 5 years.

Conclusions: Prenatal exposure to infectious or noninfectious diseases appear to influence early childhood physical, social, emotional and cognitive developmental vulnerabilities that may represent intermediate phenotypes for subsequent mental disorders.

Keywords: CNS; Risk factors; developmental epidemiology; developmental psychopathology; infection; maternal factors.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Child
  • Child Development*
  • Child of Impaired Parents / statistics & numerical data*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Communicable Diseases / epidemiology*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Mothers / statistics & numerical data*
  • New South Wales / epidemiology
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications, Infectious / epidemiology*
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / epidemiology*