Background: Prenatal maternal stress exposure has been linked to sub-optimal developmental outcomes in toddlers, while maternal emotional availability is associated with better cognitive and language abilities. It is less clear whether early care-giving relationships can moderate the impact of prenatal stress on child development. The current study investigates the impact of stress during pregnancy resulting from the Queensland Floods in 2011 on toddlers’ cognitive and language development, and examines how maternal emotional availability is associated with these outcomes.
Methods: Data were available from 131 families. Measures of prenatal stress (objective hardship, cognitive appraisal, and three measures of maternal subjective stress) were collected within one year of the 2011 Queensland floods. Maternal emotional availability was rated from video-taped mother-child play sessions at 16 months: sensitivity (e.g., affective connection, responsiveness to signals) and structuring (e.g., scaffolding, guidance, limit-setting). The toddlers’ cognitive and language development was assessed at 30 months. Interactions were tested to determine whether maternal emotional availability moderated the relationship between prenatal maternal stress and toddler cognitive and language functioning.
Results: Prenatal stress was not correlated with toddlers’ cognitive and language development at 30 months. Overall, the higher the maternal structuring and sensitivity, the better the toddlers’ cognitive outcomes. However, significant interactions showed that the effects of maternal structuring on toddler language abilities depended on the degree of prenatal maternal subjective stress: when maternal subjective stress was above fairly low levels, the greater the maternal structuring, the higher the child vocabulary level.
Conclusion: The current study highlights the importance of maternal emotional availability, especially structuring, for cognitive and language development in young children. Findings suggest that toddlers exposed to higher levels of prenatal maternal stress in utero may benefit from high maternal structuring for their language development.