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The role of prenatal maternal stress in the development of childhood anxiety symptomatology: The QF2011 Queensland Flood Study

  • Mia A. McLean (a1) (a2), Vanessa E. Cobham (a1) (a2), Gabrielle Simcock (a1) (a2), Guillaume Elgbeili (a3), Sue Kildea (a1) (a2) and Suzanne King (a3) (a4)...


It is possible that findings suggesting a link between prenatal maternal stress (PNMS) and anxiety symptoms in offspring are confounded by postnatal and/or shared mother–child heritability effects. Following exposure to a natural disaster, the Queensland Flood Study investigated the unique and additive effects of various types of disaster-related PNMS (objective hardship, cognitive appraisal, and subjective distress) on childhood anxiety symptomatology (internalizing and/or anxiety symptom measures). Timing of flood exposure during pregnancy and child sex were examined as potential moderators. After controlling for maternal psychosocial factors, greater objective hardship as a result of the floods was significantly associated with greater anxiety symptoms (N = 114) and marginally associated with greater internalizing behaviors (N = 115). Earlier timing of the flood in pregnancy was associated with greater anxiety symptoms. No such associations were found between any PNMS measure and teacher-rated child internalizing behaviors (N = 90). Sex and timing did not moderate associations. Our findings suggest that, in isolation, increased maternal hardship due to exposure to an independent stressor, during pregnancy, may have a programming effect on childhood anxiety symptoms.


Corresponding author

Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Suzanne King, Professor of Psychiatry, McGill University, Principal Investigator, Douglas Mental Health University Institute, Verdun, Quebec, H4H 1R3, Canada; E-mail:


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Many thanks to the QF2011 families for their participation in this study, and members of the QF2011 team, notably, Helen Stapleton, Laura Shoo, Donna Amaraddio, Ash-lee Heather, and Stacey Lynch.



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