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J Psychosom Res. 2013 Oct;75(4):321-6. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychores.2013.07.008. Epub 2013 Aug 5.

Physiological reactivity of pregnant women to evoked fetal startle.

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Department of Population, Family, and Reproductive Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, MD, USA. Electronic address:



The bidirectional nature of mother-child interaction is widely acknowledged during infancy and childhood. Prevailing models during pregnancy focus on unidirectional influences exerted by the pregnant woman on the developing fetus. Prior work has indicated that the fetus also affects the pregnant woman. Our objective was to determine whether a maternal psychophysiological response to stimulation of the fetus could be isolated.


Using a longitudinal design, an airborne auditory stimulus was used to elicit a fetal heart rate and motor response at 24 (n=47) and 36 weeks (n=45) of gestation. Women were blind to condition (stimulus versus sham). Maternal parameters included cardiac (heart rate) and electrodermal (skin conductance) responses. Multilevel modeling of repeated measures with 5 data points per second was used to examine fetal and maternal responses.


As expected, compared to a sham condition, the stimulus generated a fetal motor response at both gestational ages, consistent with a mild fetal startle. Fetal stimulation was associated with significant, transient slowing of maternal heart rate coupled with increased skin conductance within 10s of the stimulus at both gestational ages. Nulliparous women showed greater electrodermal responsiveness. The magnitude of the fetal motor response significantly corresponded to the maternal skin conductance response at 5, 10, 15, and 30s following stimulation.


Elicited fetal movement exerts an independent influence on the maternal autonomic nervous system. This finding contributes to current models of the dyadic relationship during pregnancy between fetus and pregnant woman.


Fetal heart rate; Fetal movement; Maternal–infant interaction; Pregnancy; Psychophysiology

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