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Impact of maternal emotional state during pregnancy on fetal heart rate variability

Lorenzo Semeia ● Ilena Bauer ● Katrin Sippel ● Julia Hartkopf ● Nora K. Schaal ● Hubert Preissl

•Maternal emotional states might impact fetal autonomic nervous system development.
•Depression and anxiety seem to impact fetal heart rate variability differently.
•Impaired heart rate variability seem to persist after birth.
•These differences are not related to maternal metabolic factors such as adiposity.

The fetal autonomic nervous system (ANS) is believed to be negatively affected by maternal adverse emotional states. In this study, we evaluated how depression, anxiety and stress during pregnancy are related to fetal heart rate variability (HRV) as recorded with magnetocardiography (MCG). We also considered metabolic factors such as maternal adiposity and circulating levels of cortisol during gestation. Furthermore, we followed up these fetuses after birth, recording HRV and saliva levels of cortisol in these infants to establish any effects postpartum.

We calculated HRV in spontaneous MCG recordings from 32 healthy fetuses between 32 and 38 weeks of gestational age. Maternal emotional state was assessed using standardized questionnaires about anxiety, depression and stress. An overall indicator of maternal well-being was calculated by z-scoring each individual questionnaire and summation. We used a median split to divide the group into high and low z-scores (HZS and LZS), respectively. Standard HRV measures were determined in the time and frequency domain. T-test analyses were performed between LZS and HZS, with the HRV and the metabolic measures as the dependent variables.

We found an impaired HRV in the HZS group both during pregnancy and after birth. No differences were observed between LZS and HZS for metabolic factors. Depression and anxiety symptoms seem to affect HRV differently. No relationship was found between maternal and infant cortisol levels.

On the basis of our results on different HRV parameters, we propose that maternal emotional state might affect the development of the fetal nervous system in utero.

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