Fetal response to induced maternal stress

Janet A. DiPietro, Kathleen A. Costigan, Edith D. Gurewitsch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

107 Scopus citations


Background: Despite increased attention to the role of antenatal maternal psychological stress in postnatal development, remarkably little information is available on the nature of the intrauterine fetal response to maternal psychological state. Aims: To determine whether: (1) the fetus responds to maternal stress; (2) the fetal response changes over gestation; and (3) individual maternal and fetal response patterns are stable over time. Study design: Induced maternal stress at 24 and 36 weeks gestational age using the Stroop color-word task. Subjects: 137 low-risk pregnant women with normally developing fetuses. Outcome measures: Maternal (heart rate and skin conductance) and fetal (heart rate, heart rate variability, and motor activity) responses. Results: The manipulation evoked maternal sympathetic activation, which declined in magnitude from 24 to 36 weeks gestation. Fetuses responded to the manipulation with increased variability in heart rate (F(2,256)=7.80, p<0.001) and suppression of motor activity (F(2,216)=15.47, p<0.001). The magnitude of the fetal response increased over gestation. The degree of maternal reactivity to and recovery from the stressor were correlated over time (r's=0.53 and 0.60 for heart rate; r's=0.31 and 0.36 for skin conductance; p's<0.001). There was moderate stability in the magnitude of the fetal motor response (r=0.25, p<0.01). Conclusions: Demonstration of fetal responses to maternal sympathetic activation evoked by a benign cognitive stressor suggests that fetal neurobehavioral regulation is routinely disrupted by maternal environmental intrusions. There is no evidence of a protective effect of diminished maternal sensitivity to stress on the fetus. Individual stability in the magnitude of the evoked maternal physiologic and psychological responses from 24 to 36 weeks and stability in the fetal motor response implies that characteristic response patterns emerge in utero. We propose that autonomic development is partially entrained through these processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)125-138
Number of pages14
JournalEarly Human Development
Issue number2
StatePublished - Nov 2003


  • Fetal heart rate
  • Fetal movement
  • Pregnancy
  • Stress

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Obstetrics and Gynecology


Dive into the research topics of 'Fetal response to induced maternal stress'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this