New research presented at the 25th European Congress of Endocrinology in Istanbul suggests that elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the third trimester of pregnancy may have a positive impact on speech and language skills during the initial three years of a child’s life.
This study aims to enhance scientists’ understanding of how cortisol influences fetal and child development.
Language development in early childhood can indicate the degree of advancement of a baby’s nervous system in the womb. Cortisol, a hormone that aids in stress response, plays a role in guiding fetal growth and influencing brain development. However, the specific effects of cortisol on early language development have remained uncertain.
To delve deeper into this topic, researchers from Odense University Hospital examined data on cortisol levels in 1,093 Danish women during their third trimester of pregnancy. They also assessed the speech and language skills of 1,093 Danish children aged between 12 and 37 months, utilizing the Odense Child Cohort. The study findings revealed that boys exposed to high cortisol levels in utero tended to exhibit a larger vocabulary between the ages of 12 and 37 months, while girls demonstrated better word comprehension between 12 and 21 months.
Dr. Anja Fenger Dreyer, one of the researchers involved in the study, stated, “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to investigate the association between maternal cortisol levels and language development in children over time, taking into account the child’s gender and the mother’s educational level.”
Dr. Dreyer further emphasized the study’s significance, highlighting its substantial sample size, employment of high-quality analytical methods, and consideration of relevant factors. Consequently, the study contributes significantly to our comprehension of the physiological effects of prenatal cortisol exposure on fetal maturation and child development.
In their subsequent research phase, the team intends to examine whether children exposed to high cortisol levels in the womb are more likely to exhibit higher intelligence quotient (IQ) scores. The Odense Child Cohort includes data from intelligence tests administered when the children reach the age of 7.
Dr. Dreyer explained, “Early language development in children is known to predict cognitive function later in life, encompassing aspects such as attention, memory, and learning. Hence, we aim to investigate whether prenatal cortisol exposure is also associated with the IQ scores of 7-year-old children.”