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

Braithwaite, Elizabeth and Pickles, Andrew and Wright, Nicola and Sharp, Helen and Hill, Jonathan (2020) Sex-differences in foetal origins of child emotional symptoms: a test of evolutionary hypotheses in a large, general population cohort. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. ISSN 0021-9630 (In Press)

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Abstract

Background Based on previous findings from the Wirral Child Health and Development Study (WCHADS), and on evolutionary hypotheses, we pre-registered analyses of data from a large epidemiological sample (https://osf.io/fn5g9/register/564d31db8c5e4a7c9694b2be.), to test for sex-dependent moderation by prenatal maternal depressive symptoms of the association between postnatal maternal depressive symptoms and child emotional problems. Methods 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 .015 to .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 3 depression following low prenatal depression. These findings provide further indications that studies of postnatal environments and child adjustment should consider moderation by prenatal maternal mood, and sex differences.

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