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Higher maternal cortisol in pregnancy has been linked to childhood obesity. Much of the previous research has been limited in that cortisol in pregnancy is only measured at one time-point, precluding the ability to examine critical timing effects of prenatal maternal cortisol. To fill this gap, this longitudinal study measured maternal plasma cortisol at 15, 19, 25, and 31 weeks of pregnancy, and assessed infant body mass index percentile (BMIP)1 at birth, 3, 6, 12, and 24 months in 189 mother-infant pairs. Three distinct patterns of maternal cortisol in pregnancy (typical, steep, and flat trajectories) were identified using general growth mixture modeling (GGMM)2 and then used to predict child growth patterns using multilevel modeling. Infants of mothers who had flat cortisol trajectories, characterized by relatively high cortisol in early gestation that plateaus by mid-gestation, experienced more rapid increases in BMIP from birth to 6 months, and had higher BMIPs at 3 and 6 months, than infants whose mothers had the typical slow cortisol rise over gestation, or steep (rapidly accelerating) trajectories. These results suggest that it is not just the total amount of maternal cortisol in pregnancy that shapes early infant growth, but instead the timing and trajectory of prenatal cortisol exposure. To better understand the early origins of obesity risk, future research is needed to investigate the factors that shape mothers’ prenatal cortisol trajectories.


NOTICE: this is the author’s version of a work that was accepted for publication in Psychoneuroendocrinology. Changes resulting from the publishing process, such as peer review, editing, corrections, structural formatting, and other quality control mechanisms may not be reflected in this document. Changes may have been made to this work since it was submitted for publication. A definitive version was subsequently published in Psychoneuroendocrinology, volume 147, in 2023.

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