Heart rate variability has an impact on how susceptible infants are to the mother’s anxiety during pregnancy

Submitted on Tue, 10/25/2016 - 10:39

A new study conducted at the University of Tampere in Finland shows that the physiology of the infant has an impact on how strongly the mother’s anxiety during pregnancy predicts the infant’s  temperamental negative emotionality, such as crying, fussiness, and fearfulness. According to the study, the association between maternal anxiety during pregnancy and infant negative emotionality at eight months was strong in infants with high heart rate variability. No such association was detected among infants with lower heart rate variability.

Heart rate variability reflects the functioning of the autonomic nervous system, and recent research has linked high heart rate variability to greater susceptibility to various environmental influences. Research has also shown that the stress and anxiety experienced by the mother during pregnancy are associated with higher temperamental negative emotionality in infants.

“The main contribution of this study is to point out that not all children are similarly affected by pregnancy-related factors. The biological characteristics of infants may have an effect on how sensitive they are to maternal stress and anxiety during pregnancy,” says postdoctoral researcher Mikko Peltola.

In this research, heart rate variability, which was measured as respiratory sinus arrhythmia, was used for the first time to investigate the mechanisms of the influence of pregnancy-related factors on child development.

The data for this study were collected within a larger Child-Sleep birth cohort study, which was started in Tampere, Finland, in 2012. The Child-Sleep project is coordinated by the University of Tampere, Tampere University Hospital, the National Institute for Health and Welfare, and the University of Eastern Finland. The Academy of Finland is the main funder of the research.

The results were published in the journal Developmental Psychobiology.

Peltola MJ, Mäkelä T, Paavonen EJ, Vierikko E, Saarenpää-Heikkilä O, Paunio T, Hietanen JK, Kylliäinen A. (2016). Respiratory sinus arrhythmia moderates the impact of maternal prenatal anxiety on infant negative affectivity. Developmental Psychobiology.

For more information, please contact:
Adjunct professor, postdoctoral researcher Mikko Peltola, tel. +358 50 318 6120