Effects of pre- and postnatal maternal stress on infant temperament and autonomic nervous system reactivity and regulation in a diverse, low-income population

Dev Psychopathol. 2017 Dec;29(5):1553-1571. doi: 10.1017/S0954579417001237.


We examined the prospective associations of objective and subjective measures of stress during pregnancy with infant stress reactivity and regulation, an early-life predictor of psychopathology. In a racially and ethnically diverse low-income sample of 151 mother-infant dyads, maternal reports of stressful life events (SLE) and perceived stress (PS) were collected serially over gestation and the early postpartum period. Infant reactivity and regulation at 6 months of age was assessed via maternal report of temperament (negativity, surgency, and regulation) and infant parasympathetic nervous system physiology (respiratory sinus arrhythmia [RSA]) during the Still Face Paradigm. Regression models predicting infant temperament showed higher maternal prenatal PS predicted lower surgency and self-regulation but not negativity. Regression models predicting infant physiology showed higher numbers of SLE during gestation predicted greater RSA reactivity and weaker recovery. Tests of interactions revealed SLE predicted RSA reactivity only at moderate to high levels of PS. Thus, findings suggest objective and subjective measures of maternal prenatal stress uniquely predict infant behavior and physiology, adjusting for key pre- and postnatal covariates, and advance the limited evidence for such prenatal programming within high-risk populations. Assessing multiple levels of maternal stress and offspring stress reactivity and regulation provides a richer picture of intergenerational transmission of adversity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiopathology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant Behavior / physiology
  • Male
  • Mothers
  • Postpartum Period / psychology
  • Poverty / psychology*
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications / physiopathology*
  • Pregnancy Complications / psychology
  • Prospective Studies
  • Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia / physiology
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology
  • Temperament / physiology*