Effects of maternal breathing rate, psychiatric status, and cortisol on fetal heart rate

Catherine Monk, William P. Fifer, Michael M. Myers, Emilia Bagiella, Jimmy K. Duong, Ivy S. Chen, Lauren Leotti, Arman Altincatal

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

47 Scopus citations


Women's experiences during pregnancy are predictive of variation in neurobehavioral profiles in their children. Few studies have assessed these relationships during the prenatal period. In 113 women in the 36th -38th gestational week (mean age 26.3±5.4 years), electrocardiogram, blood pressure, respiration, salivary cortisol, and fetal heart rate (HR) were measured during baseline, a psychological challenge (Stroop color-word matching task), and a standardized paced breathing protocol. Subjects underwent the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-IV prior to testing and were grouped as: depressed, co-morbid for depression and anxiety, anxiety disorder only, and control. There was a significant main effect of maternal diagnostic group on fetal HR only during the Stroop task: fetuses of women in the co-morbid group had a greater HR increase compared to controls (p<.05). Overall, fetuses showed robust increases in HR during paced breathing (p<.0001), and there was no significant difference by maternal diagnosis. For both tasks, changes in fetal HR were independent of women's concurrent cardiorespiratory activity. Finally, although cortisol was higher in the co-morbid group (p<.05), across all participants, there was a trend for maternal baseline cortisol to be positively associated with average fetal HR (p=.06). These findings indicate that variation in fetal HR reactivity-an index of emerging regulatory capacities-is likely influenced by multiple acute and chronic factors associated with women's psychobiology.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)221-233
Number of pages13
JournalDevelopmental Psychobiology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Apr 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • Cortisol
  • Fetal heart rate
  • Fetal heart rate reactivity
  • Paced breathing
  • Prenatal depression


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