HomeWorldStress hormones during pregnancy can increase early speech development in children

Stress hormones during pregnancy can increase early speech development in children

High levels of the stress hormone cortisol during the third trimester of pregnancy can increase speech and language abilities in the first three years of a child’s life, according to research presented at the 25th European Congress of Endocrinology in Istanbul. The results add to our understanding of how cortisol affects fetal and infant development.

Early speech development is a good indicator of how well a newborn’s nervous system has developed in the womb. Fetal growth is controlled and brain development is influenced by prenatal exposure to cortisol, a steroid hormone that helps the body respond to stress. However, it is still unclear how cortisol affects early language development.

Researchers at Odense University Hospital examined data from the Odense Child Cohort on 1,093 Danish toddlers aged 12–37 months and the cortisol levels of 1,093 Danish mothers during the third trimester of pregnancy.

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They found that while females were better at understanding more words between 12 and 21 months of age, boys exposed to high levels of cortisol in utero were able to pronounce more words from 12 to 37 months.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to examine the association between maternal cortisol levels and children’s language development over time, taking into account offspring gender and maternal education level,” said Dr. Anja Fenger Dreyer, who led the study participated.

She added: “We had access to a large study cohort, high-quality analysis methods and relevant covariates, making our study a significant contribution to the physiological understanding of prenatal cortisol exposure in fetal maturation and child development.”

The team will further assess whether children exposed to high cortisol in the womb are more likely to have a higher intelligence quotient (IQ). In addition to data on maternal cortisol levels and early language development, the Odense Child Cohort also has data on intelligence tests taken by children aged 7 years.

“Early language development in children is known to be a predictor for cognitive functions in later life, such as attention, memory and learning, so we want to investigate whether prenatal exposure to cortisol is also related to children’s IQ scores at age 7,” said Dr. Fenger Dreyer.

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