, Volume 55, Issue 5, pp 1611–1639 | Cite as

Prenatal Exposure to an Acute Stressor and Children’s Cognitive Outcomes

  • Florencia TorcheEmail author


Exposure to environmental stressors is highly prevalent and unequally distributed along socioeconomic lines and may have enduring negative consequences, even when experienced before birth. Yet, estimating the consequences of prenatal stress on children’s outcomes is complicated by the issue of confounding (i.e., unobserved factors correlated with stress exposure and with children’s outcomes). I combine a natural experiment—a strong earthquake in Chile—with a panel survey to capture the effect of prenatal exposure on acute stress and children’s cognitive ability. I find that stress exposure in early pregnancy has no effect on children’s cognition among middle-class families, but it has a strong negative influence among disadvantaged families. I then examine possible pathways accounting for the socioeconomic stratification in the effect of stress, including differential exposure across socioeconomic status, differential sensitivity, and parental responses. Findings suggest that the interaction between prenatal exposures and socioeconomic advantage provides a powerful mechanism for the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage.


Prenatal stress Cognitive ability Natural experiment 



The author thanks the Departamento de Estudios Sociológicos at Universidad Católica de Chile for implementing the fieldwork. Viviana Salinas provided outstanding assistance managing the project, and Alejandra Abufhele and Daniela Aranis provided exceptional research assistantship. The author also thanks Nicole Marwell, Carolina Milesi, Ricardo Rosas, Matt Salganik, Rachel Sherman, Donald Treiman, and the Demography editors and anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions. This study was partially funded by the National Science Foundation (Grant SES 1023841) and the United Nations Development Program UNDP.

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© Population Association of America 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyStanford UniversityStanfordUSA

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