Prenatal exposure to maternal stress, anxiety, and depression can have lasting effects on infant development with risk of psychopathology. Although the impact of prenatal maternal distress has been well documented, the potential mechanisms through which maternal psychosocial variables shape development have yet to be fully elucidated. Advances in molecular biology have highlighted the role of epigenetic mechanisms in regulating gene activity, neurobiology, and behavior and the potential role of environmentally induced epigenetic variation in linking early life exposures to long-term biobehavioral outcomes. In this article, we discuss evidence illustrating the association between maternal prenatal distress and both fetal and infant developmental trajectories and the potential role of epigenetic mechanisms in mediating these effects. Postnatal experiences may have a critical moderating influence on prenatal effects, and we review findings illustrating prenatal–postnatal interplay and the developmental and epigenetic consequences of postnatal mother–infant interactions. The in utero environment is regulated by placental function and there is emerging evidence that the placenta is highly susceptible to maternal distress and a target of epigenetic dysregulation. Integrating studies of prenatal exposures, placental function, and postnatal maternal care with the exploration of epigenetic mechanisms may provide novel insights into the pathophysiology induced by maternal distress.
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