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Background: Prenatal cortisol exposure is essential for neurodevelopment. Maternal cortisol levels could be associated with offspring autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Aim: To investigate associations between maternal 3rd trimester cortisol and offspring traits of ASD and ADHD. Material and methods: Mother-child pairs were included from the prospective study Odense Child Cohort. Morning serum cortisol and 24-hour urine cortisol/cortisone were collected at gestational week 27–30. Offspring ASD and ADHD traits were assessed at age three and five years using the Child Behavior Checklist. Maternal cortisol measurements and offspring ASD and ADHD traits assessment were available in (n = 1131; 52% boys) mother-child pairs at age three and (n = 717; 54% boys) at five years of age. Maternal 24-hour urine measurement was available in a subset, at offspring three years of age (n = 300) and at five years of age (n = 217). Associations between maternal cortisol (continuous and tertiles) and offspring ASD or ADHD traits were examined in regression models adjusted for offspring sex, maternal age, pre-pregnancy BMI, parity, maternal education level, parental psychiatric disorders, and maternal smoking and stratified for offspring sex. Results: Maternal mean age ( ± SD) was 30 years ( ± 4.4) and median BMI (25%; 75% percentiles) 23.5 kg/m2 (21.3; 26.6). Higher maternal serum cortisol levels were associated with higher prevalence of offspring ASD traits at three years of age in the total study cohort and in boys after stratifying for offspring sex. In the total population, tertiles of serum cortisol showed a significant dose-response relationship to ASD traits in unadjusted and adjusted models (p-values for linear trend, p < 0.01 and p = 0.02, respectively). In offspring at five years, associations between maternal cortisol and offspring ASD traits were non-significant (all p-values > 0.2). Maternal cortisol was not associated with offspring ADHD traits (all p-values > 0.07) in offspring at three and five years. Maternal 24-hour urine cortisol, cortisone, or cortisol/cortisone ratio were not associated with offspring ASD or ADHD traits. Conclusion: Higher maternal serum cortisol in 3rd trimester was associated with offspring ASD traits at three years of age in the whole study cohort and in boys, but not in girls. This association was non-significant at five years of age.

Original languageEnglish
Article number106293
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2023


  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • Odense Child Cohort
  • Offspring
  • Pregnancy
  • Third trimester cortisol


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