Exposure to prenatal stressors and infant autonomic nervous system regulation of stress

Author: Sandra J Weiss1, Bruce Cooper1, Cherry Leung1
1 Department of Community Health Systems, University of California, San Francisco, CA, USA.
Conference/Journal: Stress
Date published: 2024 Jan 1
Other: Volume ID: 27 , Issue ID: 1 , Pages: 2327328 , Special Notes: doi: 10.1080/10253890.2024.2327328. , Word Count: 256

The purpose of this study was to determine the relationship between fetal exposure to maternal prenatal stressors and infant parasympathetic (PNS) and sympathetic (SNS) nervous function at 3 timepoints across the first year of life.

Autonomic nervous system impairments may mediate associations between gestational exposure to stressors and later infant health problems. Heart rate variability (HRV) provides a sensitive index of PNS and SNS function. However, no studies have assessed longitudinal associations between prenatal stressors and infant HRV measures of both PNS and SNS over the first year of life.

During the third trimester of pregnancy, 233 women completed measures of life stressors and depression. At 1, 6 and 12 months of age, a stressor protocol was administered while infant electrocardiographic (ECG) data were collected from a baseline through a post-stressor period. HRV measures of PNS and SNS activity (HF, LF, LF/HF ratio) were generated from ECG data. We used multilevel regression to examine the aims, adjusting for maternal depression and neonatal morbidity.

There were no associations between prenatal stressors and any baseline or reactivity HRV metric over the infant's first year of life. However, exposure to more stressors was associated with lower post-stressor LF HRV at both 6 (β = -.44, p = .001) and 12 (β = -.37, p = .005) months of age.

Findings suggest potential alterations in development of the vagally mediated baroreflex function as a result of exposure to prenatal stressors, with implications for the infants' ability to generate a resilient recovery in response to stressors.

Keywords: Stressors; autonomic nervous system; fetal programming; heart rate variability; infant; pregnancy.

PMID: 38497496 DOI: 10.1080/10253890.2024.2327328