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Frequency of Infant Stroking Reported by Mothers Moderates the Effect of Prenatal Depression on Infant Behavioural and Physiological Outcomes
Published: Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Author: Helen Sharp et al.

by Helen Sharp, Andrew Pickles, Michael Meaney, Kate Marshall, Florin Tibu, Jonathan Hill

Animal studies find that prenatal stress is associated with increased physiological and emotional reactivity later in life, mediated via fetal programming of the HPA axis through decreased glucocorticoid receptor (GR) gene expression. Post-natal behaviours, notably licking and grooming in rats, cause decreased behavioural indices of fear and reduced HPA axis reactivity mediated via increased GR gene expression. Post-natal maternal behaviours may therefore be expected to modify prenatal effects, but this has not previously been examined in humans. We examined whether, according to self-report, maternal stroking over the first weeks of life modified associations between prenatal depression and physiological and behavioral outcomes in infancy, hence mimicking effects of rodent licking and grooming. From a general population sample of 1233 first time mothers recruited at 20 weeks gestation we drew a stratified random sample of 316 for assessment at 32 weeks based on reported inter-partner psychological abuse, a risk to child development. Of these 271 provided data at 5, 9 and 29 weeks post delivery. Mothers reported how often they stroked their babies at 5 and 9 weeks. At 29 weeks vagal withdrawal to a stressor, a measure of physiological adaptability, and maternal reported negative emotionality were assessed. There was a significant interaction between prenatal depression and maternal stroking in the prediction of vagal reactivity to a stressor (p?=?.01), and maternal reports of infant anger proneness (p?=?.007) and fear (p?=?.043). Increasing maternal depression was associated with decreasing physiological adaptability, and with increasing negative emotionality, only in the presence of low maternal stroking. These initial findings in humans indicate that maternal stroking in infancy, as reported by mothers, has effects strongly resembling the effects of observed maternal behaviours in animals, pointing to future studies of the epigenetic, physiological and behavioral effects of maternal stroking.
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