Does Prenatal Maternal Distress Contribute to Sex Differences in Child Psychopathology?

  • Laurel M. Hicks
  • Danielle A. Swales
  • Sarah E. Garcia
  • Camille Driver
  • Elysia Poggi DavisEmail author
Sex and Gender Issues in Behavioral Health (CN Epperson and L Hantsoo, Section Editors)
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Topical Collection on Sex and Gender Issues in Behavioral Health


Purpose of Review

Prenatal maternal psychological distress is an established risk factor for the development of psychopathology in offspring. The purpose of this review is to evaluate whether sex differences in fetal responses to maternal distress contribute to sex differences in subsequent psychopathology.

Recent Findings

Male and female fetuses respond differently to stress signals. We review recent evidence that demonstrates a sex-specific pattern of association between prenatal maternal distress and pathways associated with risk for psychopathology including offspring hypothalamic pituitary adrenocortical (HPA) axis regulation, brain development, and negative emotionality.


Prenatal maternal distress exerts sex-specific consequences on the fetus. These differences may contribute to the well-established sex differences in psychopathology and in particular to greater female vulnerability to develop internalizing problems.


Prenatal Stress Sex differences Depression Development Psychopathology 


Funding information

This work supported by the National Institutes of Health [R01 MH 109662; RO1 HD065823; P50MH 096889].

Compliance with Ethics Guidelines

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Human and Animal Rights and Informed Consent

This article does not contain any studies with human or animal subjects performed by any of the authors.


Papers of particular interest, published recently, have been highlighted as: • Of importance

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Laurel M. Hicks
    • 1
  • Danielle A. Swales
    • 1
  • Sarah E. Garcia
    • 1
  • Camille Driver
    • 1
  • Elysia Poggi Davis
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of DenverDenverUSA
  2. 2.Department of Psychiatry and Human BehaviorUniversity of California IrvineOrangeUSA

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