J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry
Epub 2017 Sep 12.
Free PMC article
Objective: Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) is a parasympathetic-mediated biomarker of self-regulation linked to lifespan mental and physical health outcomes. Intergenerational impacts of mothers’ exposure to prenatal stress have been demonstrated, but evidence for biological embedding of maternal preconception stress, including adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), on infant RSA is lacking. We examine the independent effects of maternal ACEs and prenatal stress on infant RSA, seeking to broaden the understanding of the earliest origins of mental and physical health risk.
Method: Mothers reported on ACEs and prenatal stress. RSA was recorded in a sample of 167 4-month-old infants (49% female and 51% male) during a dyadic stressor, the Still Face Paradigm.
Results: Independent contributions of maternal ACEs and prenatal stress to infant RSA were observed. High maternal ACEs were associated with lower RSA, whereas prenatal stress was associated with failure to recover following the stressor. Sex but not race differences were observed. Prenatal stress was associated with higher RSA among boys but lower RSA among girls.
Conclusion: Infants’ RSA is affected by mothers’ life course experiences of stress, with ACEs predicting a lower set point and prenatal stress dampening recovery from stress. For prenatal stress but not ACEs, patterns vary across sex. Findings underscore that stress-reducing interventions for pregnant women or those considering pregnancy may lead to decreased physical and mental health risk across generations.