Obstetricians commonly administer a certain steroid to pregnant women expected to give birth prematurely, but a new study shows this medication may increase the child’s risk for behavioral and emotional problems later in life.

Doctors often administer glucocorticoids to women who are about to give birth too early. Glucocorticoids mimic the natural human hormone, cortisol, and help the baby’s lungs mature quickly enough to survive outside the women. These drugs reduce lung disorders common to premature babies and decrease the risk of life-threatening breathing problems in these tiny patients.

A new study says glucocorticoids increase the risk for ADHD, which is short for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. ADHD is one of the most common behavioral disorders among children in the United States and in the UK, where researchers conducted this study. Symptoms of childhood ADHD include daydreaming, forgetfulness, fidgeting, talkativeness, carelessness, and trouble interacting with others.

Previous research established a connection between maternal stress and symptoms of ADHD in children. Medical professionals were concerned that cortisol, the natural equivalent of glucocorticoids, was responsible for this association because the human body produces cortisol as a response to stress. Other risk factors and causes of ADHD include brain injury, environmental exposure to toxins such as lead, maternal use of alcohol or tobacco, and low birth weight.

For this study, researchers looked at children born at the same gestational age. They compared 37 children whose mothers received glucocorticoids during pregnancy with 187 children whose mothers did not receive these drugs. Years later, the children who were exposed to glucocorticoids scored lower on mental health scores at ages 8 and 16. They were also more likely to exhibit ADHD symptoms.

These research results, published in PLOS ONE, support the theory that prenatal exposure to glucocorticoids causes a stress response in a premature baby that could ultimately lead to ADHD. Still, the researchers remind prospective parents that the benefits of glucocorticoids therapies in premature babies vastly outweigh the possible risks. Parents who are concerned about the risks for ADHD in their premature child should speak with their obstetricians or general practitioner for advice.


  1. Khalife, Natasha. "Prenatal Glucocorticoid Treatment and Later Mental Health in Children and Adolescents." PLOS ONE: 22 Nov. 2013. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.
  2. "Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 18 Nov 2013. Web. 18 Dec 2013.