Maternal prenatal stress can adversely impact subsequent child neurodevelopment, but little is known about its effect on cognitive development in infancy. This analysis of 107 infants from a prospective birth cohort assessed whether prenatal stress disrupts sexually dimorphic performance typically observed on a physical reasoning task. Maternal stress was assessed at 8-14 and 33-37 gestational weeks using the Perceived Stress Scale. Stress was defined as: low (scores below the median at both times), medium (scores above the median at one of the two times), and high (scores above the median at both times). At 4.5 months infants saw videos of two events: one impossible and the other possible. In the impossible event a box was placed against a wall without support underneath. In the possible event the box was placed against the wall, supported by the floor. Looking time at each event was recorded via infrared eye-tracking. Previous literature has shown that, at 4.5 months of age, girls typically look significantly longer at the impossible than at the possible event, suggesting that they expect the unsupported box to fall and are surprised when it does not. Boys tend to look equally at the two events suggesting that they do not share this expectation. This sex difference was replicated in the current study. General linear models stratified by sex and adjusted for household income, maternal education, mother's age at birth, infant's age at exam, and order of event presentation revealed that girls whose mothers reported high perceived stress during pregnancy had shorter looking time differences between the impossible and possible events than girls whose mothers reported low perceived stress (β = -7.1; 95% CI: -12.0, -2.2 s; p = 0.006). Similar to boys, girls in the highest stress category spent about the same amount of time looking at each event. For boys, there were no significant looking time differences by maternal stress level. This finding suggests prenatal stress is associated with a delay in the development of physical reasoning in girls.
Keywords: Cognition; Maternal stress; Perceived stress; Sex differences.
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Conflict of interest statement
Declaration of competing interest The authors declare that they have no known competing financial interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to influence the work reported in this paper.
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