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Maternal antenatal anxiety, postnatal stroking and emotional problems in children: outcomes predicted from pre- and postnatal programming hypotheses

  • H. Sharp (a1), J. Hill (a2), J. Hellier (a3) and A. Pickles (a3)



Mothers' self-reported stroking of their infants over the first weeks of life modifies the association between prenatal depression and physiological and emotional reactivity at 7 months, consistent with animal studies of the effects of tactile stimulation. We now investigate whether the effects of maternal stroking persist to 2.5 years. Given animal and human evidence for sex differences in the effects of prenatal stress we compare associations in boys and girls.


From a general population sample of 1233 first-time mothers recruited at 20 weeks gestation we drew a random sample of 316 for assessment at 32 weeks, stratified by reported inter-partner psychological abuse, a risk indicator for child development. Of these mothers, 243 reported at 5 and 9 weeks how often they stroked their infants, and completed the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL) at 2.5 years post-delivery.


There was a significant interaction between prenatal anxiety and maternal stroking in the prediction of CBCL internalizing (p = 0.001) and anxious/depressed scores (p < 0.001). The effects were stronger in females than males, and the three-way interaction prenatal anxiety × maternal stroking × sex of infant was significant for internalizing symptoms (p = 0.003). The interactions arose from an association between prenatal anxiety and internalizing symptoms only in the presence of low maternal stroking.


The findings are consistent with stable epigenetic effects, many sex specific, reported in animal studies. While epigenetic mechanisms may be underlying the associations, it remains to be established whether stroking affects gene expression in humans.

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The online version of this article is published within an Open Access environment subject to the conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution licence

Corresponding author

* Address for correspondence: Professor J. Hill, Institute of Brain, Behaviour and Mental Health, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK. (Email:


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