Prenatal stress and gender role behavior in girls and boys: a longitudinal, population study.


Prenatal stress influences neural and behavioral sexual differentiation in rodents. Male offspring of stressed pregnancies show reduced masculine-typical characteristics and increased feminine-typical characteristics, whereas female offspring show the opposite pattern, reduced feminine-typical and increased masculine-typical characteristics. These outcomes resemble those seen following manipulations of gonadal hormones and are thought to occur because stress influences these hormones during critical periods of development. Research on prenatal stress and human sexual differentiation has produced inconsistent results, perhaps because studies have used small samples and assessed prenatal stress retrospectively. We related maternal self-reports of prenatal stress to childhood gender role behavior in a prospective, population study of 13,998 pregnancies resulting in 14,138 offspring. Neither stress reported during the first 18 weeks of pregnancy nor stress reported from week 19 of pregnancy to week 8 postnatal related to gender role behavior in male offspring at the age of 42 months. In female offspring, maternal reports of stress during both periods showed only small correlations with masculine-typical behavior. Although this relationship remained significant when other factors that related to stress were controlled, these other factors made larger contributions to girls' gender role behavior than did prenatal stress. In addition, in both boys and girls, older male or female siblings, parental adherence to traditional sex roles, maternal use of tobacco or alcohol during pregnancy, and maternal education all related significantly to gender role behavior. Our results suggest that prenatal stress does not influence the development of gender role behavior in boys and appears to have relatively little, if any, influence on gender role behavior in girls.