Thinking Across Generations: Unique Contributions of Maternal Early Life and Prenatal Stress to Infant Physiology

J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry

2017 Nov;56(11):922-929. 

doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2017.09.001. 

Epub 2017 Sep 12.

Sarah A O Gray 1Christopher W Jones 2Katherine P Theall 1Erin Glackin 1Stacy S Drury 3

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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.

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About S. R. Zelenz 119 Articles
S.R. Zelenz has worked in education for 20 years. Working with students from all walks of life, cultures, races, and social diversity, Zelenz’s research in Educational Leadership led to finding a better way to approach learning for students with trauma histories. Many were juvenile offenders, gang members, diagnosed with varying behavioral disorders, or had family histories of violence, murder, or narcissistic parenting. This research could not be effectively accomplished without further understanding: how epigenetic trauma inheritance may be impacting these students; how brain development from trauma may be impacting their behavioral and emotional development; as well as deep understanding of psychology and its varying classifications for behavioral and personality disorders. The goal is to find solutions for changing the conversation and making a real difference for these students. She has also worked with nonprofits of varying focus areas for the last 25 years. Her undergraduate degree in Arts Administration and Music prepared her for managing nonprofits of any size as well as procuring funding so that they can achieve their goals. Pairing her nonprofit background with her education background, she has been able to make a difference for over 200 nonprofits worldwide, written curriculum for schools across the globe, and assisted many arts organizations through performance and management.