Prenatal stress and maternal behavior in intact virgin rats: response latencies are decreased in males and increased in females

Horm Behav. 1988 Mar;22(1):76-89. doi: 10.1016/0018-506x(88)90032-3.


The repeated findings that levels of various male-typical behaviors (e.g., copulatory behavior and intermale aggression) are reduced in prenatally stressed (P-S) males, coupled with reports of effects on female physiology and behavior, prompted us to examine the maternal behaviors of P-S animals toward young. Sprague-Dawley female rats were timed-mated (+ sperm = Day 1). From Gestation Days 15 to 22 experimental females were subjected to heat and restraint stress. Control females remained undisturbed throughout pregnancy. The offspring, as adults, were assessed for maternal behavior. P-S males exhibited a significantly shorter latency (in days) to show full maternal behavior (FMB) than Control males, median = 5.0 vs 8.0, respectively. P-S females, on the other hand, exhibited a significantly longer latency than Control females to show FMB (7.0 vs 3.0, respectively). as well as longer latencies to retrieve one, two, or three pups, to begin to crouch over pups, and to build nests in response to young. Sex differences were apparent between Control males and Control females (females were more responsive to young). In contrast, P-S males and Control females exhibited similar latencies to show components of FMB (3-5 days), as did P-S females and Control males (7-9 days). These data demonstrate, therefore, that prenatal stress eliminates the sex difference normally observed in pup-induced maternal behavior. Moreover, the data suggest that prenatal stress renders the male's responsiveness to young more "female-like," while conversely rendering the response of the female more "male-like."

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Female
  • Male
  • Maternal Behavior / physiology*
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Inbred Strains
  • Reaction Time
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Stress, Physiological / physiopathology*