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There is evidence that fetal exposure to maternal stress is associated with adverse birth outcomes. Less is known about the association between fetal responses to a stressor and indicators of fetal maturity and developmental outcomes. The purpose of the present study was to determine whether fetal heart rate (FHR) patterns in response to a startling stimulus at ∼30 weeks of gestation were associated with gestational age at birth and birth weight. FHR was measured in 156 maternal–fetal dyads following a vibroacoustic stimulus. All pregnancies were singleton intrauterine pregnancies in English-speaking women who were primarily married, middle class, White and at least 18 years of age. Group-based trajectory modeling identified five groups of fetuses displaying distinctive longitudinal trajectories of FHR response to the startling stimulus. The FHR group trajectories were significantly associated with birth weight percentile (P < 0.01) even after controlling for estimated fetal weight at the time of assessment and parity, which are the known factors influencing birth weight (P < 0.01). Post hoc analyses indicated that two groups accounted for the association between FHR patterns and birth weight. The group (n = 23) with the lowest birth weight exhibited an immediate FHR deceleration followed by an immediate acceleration that does not recover. An FHR pattern characterized by immediate and fast acceleration to the peak and a slow discovery to baseline was associated with the highest birth weight. This is the first direct evidence showing that low birth weight and the resulting neurological consequences may have their origins in early fetal development.


This is a pre-copy-editing, author-produced PDF of an article accepted for publication in Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, volume 2, issue 4, in 2011 following peer review. This article may not exactly replicate the final published version. The definitive publisher-authenticated version is available online at


Cambridge University Press



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