Cardiac sympathetic activation and parasympathetic withdrawal during psychosocial stress exposure in 6-month-old infants

Thomas Ritz, Stefan M. Schulz, David Rosenfield, Rosalind J. Wright, Michelle Bosquet Enlow

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Infant autonomic reactivity to stress is a potential predictor of later life health complications, but research has not sufficiently examined sympathetic activity, controlled for effects of physical activity and respiration, or studied associations among autonomic adjustments, cardiac activity, and affect in infants. We studied 278 infants during the repeated Still-Face Paradigm, a standardized stressor, while monitoring cardiac activity (ECG) and respiratory pattern (respiratory inductance plethysmography). Video ratings of physical activity and affect were also performed. Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) and T-wave amplitude (TWA) served as noninvasive indicators of cardiac parasympathetic and sympathetic activity, respectively. Responses were compared between infants who completed two still-face exposures and those who terminated after one exposure due to visible distress. Findings, controlled for physical activity, showed robust reductions in respiration-adjusted RSA and TWA, with more tonic attenuation of TWA. Infants completing only one still-face trial showed more pronounced autonomic changes and less recovery from stress. They also showed elevated minute ventilation, suggesting hyperventilation. Both reductions in adjusted RSA and TWA contributed equally to heart rate changes and were associated with higher negative and lower positive affect. These associations were more robust in the group of distressed infants unable to complete both still-face trials. Thus, cardiac sympathetic activation and parasympathetic withdrawal are part of the infant stress response, beyond associated physical activity and respiration changes. Their association with cardiac chronotropy and affect increases as infants' distress level increases. This excess reactivity to social stress should be examined as a predictor of future cardiovascular disease.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere13673
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2020


  • cardiac activity
  • infants
  • parasympathetic activity
  • respiration
  • stress
  • sympathetic activity


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