Effects of women's stress-elicited physiological activity and chronic anxiety on fetal heart rate

J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2003 Feb;24(1):32-8. doi: 10.1097/00004703-200302000-00008.


This study examined the effects of pregnant women's acute stress reactivity and chronic anxiety on fetal heart rate (HR). Thirty-two healthy third trimester pregnant women were instrumented to monitor continuous electrocardiography, blood pressure, respiration, and fetal HR. Subjects completed the trait anxiety subscale of the State Trait Anxiety Index, then rested quietly for a 5-minute baseline period, followed by a 5-minute Stroop color-word matching task and a 5-minute recovery period. Fetal HR changes during women's recovery from a stressful task were associated with the women's concurrently collected HR and blood pressure changes (r =.63, p <.05). Fetal HR changes during recovery, as well as during women's exposure to the Stroop task, were correlated with their mothers' trait anxiety scores (r =.39, p <.05 and r = -.52, p <.01, respectively). Finally, a combination of measures of women's cardiovascular activity during recovery and trait anxiety scores accounted for two thirds of the variance in fetal HR changes during the same recovery period (r =.69, p <.001). The results from this study link changes in fetal behavior with acute changes in women's cardiovascular activity after psychological stress and women's anxiety status. This indicates that variations in women's emotion-based physiological activity can affect the fetus and may be centrally important to fetal development.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anxiety / physiopathology*
  • Female
  • Fetal Monitoring
  • Heart Rate, Fetal*
  • Humans
  • Mothers / psychology*
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Trimester, Third
  • Problem Solving / physiology
  • Sampling Studies
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*