Document Type


Publication Date



Associations between prenatal maternal psychological distress and offspring developmental outcomes are well documented, yet relatively little research has examined links between maternal distress and development in utero, prior to postpartum influences. Fetal heart rate (FHR) parameters are established indices of central and autonomic nervous system maturation and function which demonstrate continuity with postnatal outcomes. This prospective, longitudinal study of 149 maternal–fetal pairs evaluated associations between prenatal maternal distress, FHR parameters, and dimensions of infant temperament. Women reported their symptoms of psychological distress at five prenatal visits, and FHR monitoring was conducted at the last three visits. Maternal report of infant temperament was collected at 3 and 6 months of age. Exposure to elevated prenatal maternal psychological distress was associated with higher late-gestation resting mean FHR (FHRM) among female but not male fetuses. Higher late-gestation FHRM was associated with lower infant orienting/regulation and with higher infant negative affectivity, and these associations did not differ by infant sex. A path analysis identified higher FHRM as one pathway by which elevated prenatal maternal distress was associated with lower orienting/regulation among female infants. Findings suggest that, for females, elevated maternal distress alters fetal development, with implications for postnatal function. Results also support the notion that, for both sexes, individual differences in regulation emerge prenatally and are maintained into infancy. Collectively, these findings underscore the utility of direct assessment of development in utero when examining if prenatal experiences are carried forward into postnatal life.


This is a pre-copy-editing, author-produced PDF of an article accepted for publication in Development and Psychopathology, volume 32, issue 5, in 2021 following peer review. The definitive publisher-authenticated version is available online at


The authors

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.