Exposure to Traumatic Events in Childhood Predicts Cortisol Production Among High Risk Pregnant Women

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Childhood exposure to traumatic events has a profound and disruptive impact on mental and physical health, including stress physiology. In the current study, we evaluate 90 pregnant women at risk for preterm delivery and assess the association between history of exposure to traumatic events and hair cortisol concentrations, an integrated measure of cortisol production. Exposure to more traumatic events in childhood and in adulthood independently predicted elevated hair cortisol concentrations in pregnancy. Notably, the impact of childhood exposure to traumatic events remained after accounting for more proximal traumatic events in adulthood. Further, there was a significant interaction between childhood and adult exposures. Traumatic experiences in adulthood were more strongly associated with hair cortisol concentrations among mothers with a history of greater childhood trauma. Findings suggest that not only do proximal adult exposures impact HPA-axis functioning during pregnancy, but that childhood traumatic experiences have persisting consequences for HPA-axis functioning during pregnancy. Maternal HPA-axis dysregulation in pregnancy has consequences for both maternal health and for fetal development. Therefore, we consider prenatal maternal HPA-axis functioning as a potential biological pathway underlying intergenerational consequences of childhood trauma.


This article was originally published in Biological Psychology, volume 139, in 2018. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsycho.2018.10.006