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Associations among maternal lifetime trauma, psychological symptoms in pregnancy, and infant stress reactivity and regulation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 June 2022

Sophie Foss*
Department of Psychiatry, Boston Children’s Hospital, Boston, MA, USA Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA
Carter R. Petty
Institutional Centers for Clinical and Translational Research, Boston Children’s Hospital, Boston, MA, USA
Caroline Howell
Department of Psychiatry, Boston Children’s Hospital, Boston, MA, USA
Juliana Mendonca
Department of Psychiatry, Boston Children’s Hospital, Boston, MA, USA
Abigail Bosse
Department of Psychiatry, Boston Children’s Hospital, Boston, MA, USA
Deborah P. Waber
Department of Psychiatry, Boston Children’s Hospital, Boston, MA, USA Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA
Rosalind J. Wright
Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, NY, USA Kravis Children’s Hospital, Department of Pediatrics, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, NY, USA Institute for Exposomic Research, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, NY, USA
Michelle Bosquet Enlow
Department of Psychiatry, Boston Children’s Hospital, Boston, MA, USA Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA
Corresponding author: Sophie Foss, email:


Maternal trauma has intergenerational implications, including worse birth outcomes, altered brain morphology, and poorer mental health. Research investigating intergenerational effects of maternal trauma on infant stress reactivity and regulation is limited. Maternal mental health during pregnancy may be a contributor: psychopathology is a sequela of trauma exposure and predictor of altered self-regulatory capacity in offspring of affected mothers. We assessed associations among maternal lifetime trauma and infant stress responsivity, mediated by psychological symptoms in pregnancy. Mothers reported lifetime trauma history and anxiety, depressive, and posttraumatic stress symptoms during pregnancy. At infant age 6 months, stress reactivity and regulation were assessed via maternal behavior ratings (Infant Behavior Questionnaire-Revised, IBQ-R) and behavioral (negative mood) and physiological (respiratory sinus arrhythmia, RSA) markers during a laboratory stressor (Still-Face Paradigm). Maternal trauma was directly associated with lower infant physiological regulation and indirectly associated with lower levels of both infant behavioral and physiological regulation via higher maternal anxiety during pregnancy. Maternal trauma was also indirectly associated with higher infant reactivity via higher maternal anxiety during pregnancy. Post hoc analyses indicated differential contributions of maternal prenatal versus postnatal anxiety to infant outcomes. Findings highlight potential contributory mechanisms toward maladaptive child stress response, which has been associated with poor behavioral, cognitive, and academic outcomes.

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© The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press

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