Neonatal Stress Reactivity: Predictions to Later Emotional Temperament

Megan R. Gunnar, Fran L. Porter, Cynthia M. Wolf, Joseph Rigatuso, Mary C. Larson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

140 Scopus citations


To investigate the relations among popular measures of neonatal stress and their link to subsequent temperament, 50 full‐term newborns from a normal care nursery were examined responding to a heelstick blood draw. Baseline and heelstick measures of behavioral state, heart period, vagal tone, and salivary cortisol were obtained. Recovery measures of behavioral and cardiac activity were also analyzed. Mothers completed Rothbart's Infant Behavior Questionnaire when their infants reached 6 months of age. Baseline vagal tone predicted cortisol in response to the heelstick, suggesting that baseline vagal tone reflects the infants' ability to react to stressors. Greater reactivity to the heelstick (more crying, shorter heart periods, lower vagal tone, and higher cortisol) was associated with lower scores on “Distress‐to‐Limitations” temperament at 6 months. This finding was consistent with the expectation that the capacity to react strongly to an aversive stimulus would reflect better neurobehavioral organization in the newborn. Recovery measures of cardiac activity approximated and were correlated with baseline measures indicating the strong self‐righting properties of the healthy newborn. Finally, vagal tone and salivary cortisol measures were not significantly related, suggesting the importance of assessing both systems in studies of the ontogeny of stress‐temperament relations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-13
Number of pages13
JournalChild development
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 1995


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