Early and current life adversity: Past and present influences on maternal diurnal cortisol rhythms during pregnancy

Jacquelyn E. Stephens, Courtenay L. Kessler, Claudia Buss, Gregory E. Miller, William A. Grobman, Lauren Keenan-Devlin, Ann E. Borders, Emma K. Adam*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


Stress during pregnancy affects maternal health and well-being, as well as the health and well-being of the next generation, in part through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Although most studies have focused solely on proximal experiences (i.e., during the pregnancy) as sources of prenatal stress, there has been a recent surge in studies that examine maternal early life adversity as a source of stress system dysregulation during pregnancy. The current study of 178 pregnant women examined the association of economic and life stress experienced during two time periods (i.e., childhood and pregnancy) with maternal HPA axis activity during the third trimester of pregnancy. Findings indicated that a current annual income of less than $15,000 and greater childhood disadvantage were associated with a flatter diurnal cortisol slope. Childhood maltreatment, particularly sexual abuse, was associated with a higher cortisol awakening response (CAR), even when controlling for recent adversity. We found some evidence that past adversity moderates the relationship between current adversity and diurnal cortisol, specifically for economic adversity and waking cortisol. Overall, our findings indicate that early life stressors play an important and underappreciated role in shaping stress biology during pregnancy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)305-319
Number of pages15
JournalDevelopmental Psychobiology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2021


  • HPA axis
  • childhood maltreatment
  • diurnal cortisol rhythms
  • pregnancy
  • salivary cortisol
  • stressful life events

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience
  • Developmental Biology


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