Maternal prenatal stress exposure and sex-specific risk of severe infection in offspring

Monique Robinson, Kim W Carter, Craig E Pennell, Peter Jacoby, Hannah C Moore, Stephen R Zubrick, David Burgner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


BACKGROUND: Maternal stressful life events during pregnancy have been associated with immune dysregulation and increased risk for asthma and atopy in offspring. Few studies have investigated whether prenatal stress is associated with increased overall or specific infectious diseases in childhood, nor explored sex differences. We sought to examine the relationship between the nature and timing of maternal stress in pregnancy and hospitalisation with infection in offspring.

METHODS: Between 1989 and 1992, exposure data on stressful life events were collected from pregnant women (Gen1) in the Raine Study at 18 and 34 weeks' gestation and linked to statutory state-wide hospital morbidity data. We examined associations between the number, category and timing of maternal prenatal stress events and overall and clinical groups of offspring (Gen2) infection-related hospitalisation until age 16 years, adjusting for maternal age, education, and smoking in pregnancy in addition to the presence of siblings at birth.

RESULTS: Of 2,141 offspring with complete stress in pregnancy data available, 1,089 had at least one infection-related hospitalisation, with upper respiratory tract infections the most common (n = 556). Each additional stressful life event during pregnancy was associated with increased risk in male offspring for hospitalisation with all infection types. There was little evidence of these associations in girls.

CONCLUSIONS: Increased exposure to stressful life events in utero is associated with sex-specific infection-related hospitalisations in childhood. Prenatal stress may adversely affect early immune development for boys and increase the risk of more severe infections. Mechanistic understanding would inform preventative interventions.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0245747
JournalPLoS One
Issue number1 January
Early online date29 Jan 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2021


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