Maternal abuse history and reduced fetal heart rate variability: Abuse-related sleep disturbance is a mediator

Hanna Gustafsson, Colleen Doyle, Michelle Gilchrist, Elizabeth Werner, Catherine Monk

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


The consequences of childhood maltreatment are profound and long lasting. Not only does the victim of abuse suffer as a child, but there is mounting evidence that a history of maltreatment places the next generation at risk for significant psychopathology. Research identifies postnatal factors as affecting this intergenerational transmission of trauma. However, emerging evidence suggests that part of this risk may be transmitted before birth, passed on via abuse-related alterations in the in utero environment that are as yet largely unidentified. To date, no study has directly assessed the influence of pregnant women's abuse history on fetal neurobehavioral development, nor considered trauma-associated poor sleep quality as a mediator reflecting established physiological dysregulation. Using data from 262 pregnant adolescents (ages 14-19), a population at elevated risk for childhood maltreatment, the current study examined maternal emotional abuse history and sleep quality in relation to third-trimester fetal resting heart rate variability, an index of parasympathetic nervous system functioning. The results indicate that maternal emotional abuse history is indirectly associated with lower fetal heart rate variability via abuse-related sleep disturbances. These data demonstrate an association between maternal abuse histories and fetal development, showing that at least part of the intergenerational transmission of risk occurs during pregnancy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1023-1034
Number of pages12
JournalDevelopment and psychopathology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 1 2017

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Publisher Copyright:
© Cambridge University Press 2016.


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