Pregnant women in poverty may be especially likely to experience sleep and circadian rhythm disturbances, which may have downstream effects on fetal neurodevelopment. However, the associations between sleep and circadian rhythm disturbances, social disadvantage during pregnancy, and neonatal brain structure remains poorly understood. The current study explored the association between maternal sleep and circadian rhythm disturbances during pregnancy and neonatal brain outcomes, examining sleep and circadian rhythm disturbances as a mediator of the effect of social disadvantage during pregnancy on infant structural brain outcomes. The study included 148 mother-infant dyads, recruited during early pregnancy, who had both actigraphy and neuroimaging data. Mothers’ sleep was assessed throughout their pregnancy using actigraphy, and neonates underwent brain magnetic resonance imaging in the first weeks of life. Neonatal structural brain outcomes included cortical gray matter, subcortical gray matter, and white matter volumes along with a measure of the total surface area of the cortex. Neonates of mothers who experienced greater inter-daily deviations in sleep duration had smaller total cortical gray and white matter volumes and reduced cortical surface areas. Neonates of mothers who had higher levels of circadian misalignment and later sleep timing during pregnancy showed smaller subcortical gray matter volumes. Inter-daily deviations in sleep duration during pregnancy mediated the association between maternal social disadvantage and neonatal structural brain outcomes. Findings highlight the importance of regularity and rhythmicity in sleep schedules during pregnancy and bring to light the role of chronodisruption as a potential mechanism underlying the deleterious neurodevelopmental effects of prenatal adversity. RESEARCH HIGHLIGHTS: Social disadvantage was associated with sleep and circadian rhythm disturbances during pregnancy, including later sleep schedules, increased variability in sleep duration, circadian misalignment, and a higher proportion of the sleep period spent awake. Maternal sleep and circadian rhythm disturbances during pregnancy were associated with decreased brain volume and reduced cortical surface area in neonates. Maternal inter-daily deviations in sleep duration during pregnancy mediated the association between social disadvantage and neonatal brain volume and cortical surface area.
- circadian rhythms