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Sex differences in foetal origins of child emotional symptoms: a test of evolutionary hypotheses in a large, general population cohort

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Elizabeth C. Braithwaite, Andrew Pickles, Nicola Wright, Helen Sharp, Jonathan Hill

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1194-1202
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines
Issue number11
Accepted/In press1 Jan 2020
Published1 Nov 2020

King's Authors


Background: Based on previous findings from the Wirral Child Health and Development Study (WCHADS), and on evolutionary hypotheses, we preregistered analyses of data from a large epidemiological sample (, to test for sex-dependent moderation by prenatal maternal depressive symptoms of the association between postnatal maternal depressive symptoms and child emotional problems. Methods: A total of 8,354 mothers and children were followed from pregnancy to 3.5 years in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC). Self-report measures of prenatal and postnatal maternal depressive symptoms, and maternal report of child emotional symptoms were administered. Results: There was a three-way interaction between maternal prenatal and postnatal depression, and child sex (Coeff.042 95% CI 0.015 to 0.068, p =.002). This arose from moderation by prenatal depression, in opposite directions in boys and in girls. In boys, the association between postnatal depression and child emotional symptoms was weaker following lower prenatal depressive symptoms (interaction term coeff =.030, p =.001), and in girls, to a lesser extent, the association was stronger following lower prenatal depressive symptoms (interaction term coeff = −.012, p =.221). Conclusions: We replicated the finding from the WCHADS that prenatal depression modifies the association between postnatal depression and children's emotional problems in a sex-dependent fashion. In ALSPAC, the sex difference was explained mainly by a protective effect of low prenatal depression in boys, while in WCHADS, it arose from greater vulnerability of girls to postnatal depression following low prenatal depression. In the light of these findings, in evaluating and implementing early interventions, there is need to consider that risks associated with postnatal depression may vary depending on maternal mood during pregnancy and may differ between boys and girls.

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