The role of cortisol in preparing the fetus for birth

Reprod Fertil Dev. 1994;6(2):141-50. doi: 10.1071/rd9940141.


The glucocorticoids, cortisol and corticosterone, have a unique function in the fetus in inducing a wide range of enzymes before birth that have little or no function during fetal life but on which survival after birth is dependent. The loss of the placenta at birth deprives the fetus of a source of oxygen, glucose and heat (among many other things) for which alternatives must be available immediately if survival is to be assured. In anticipation of these needs several organs undergo maturational changes in late pregnancy aimed at meeting these requirements. The lungs mature structurally and functionally, becoming distensible and capable of coping with high surface tension when air enters the alveoli with the first breath. In the liver, glycogen accumulates and gluconeogenesis is initiated to meet the demands for glucose until feeding begins. There is an increase in the production of tri-iodothyronine and catecholamines in preparation for the sharp increase in metabolic rate and thermogenesis associated with breathing and the cold environment. All these dramatic maturational events are regulated by cortisol as are numerous others in most organ systems that contribute to neonatal well-being but on which survival is less dependent. Pharmacological manipulation of these systems before birth has made a substantial contribution to improving human health.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Embryonic and Fetal Development / physiology*
  • Female
  • Fetal Organ Maturity / physiology
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / physiology*
  • Organ Specificity / physiology
  • Pregnancy


  • Hydrocortisone