Maternal anxiety during pregnancy predicts infant attention to affective faces

Ella Marie P. Hennessey, Danielle A. Swales, Julie Markant, M. Camille Hoffman, Benjamin L. Hankin, Elysia Poggi Davis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Prenatal maternal anxiety is a known influence on offspring development. General anxiety and pregnancy-related anxiety (a distinct type of anxiety encompassing fears associated with pregnancy) are associated with offspring socioemotional development, with potential consequences for later emotional and behavioral problems. This study examines whether maternal pregnancy-related and general anxiety relate to infant attention to affective faces, a process which plays an integral role in early socioemotional development. Methods: Participants included 86 mothers and their 6-month-old infants (56.3 % female). Mothers completed measures of pregnancy-related and general anxiety three times through gestation. Infants' attention to affective faces was assessed with an eye-tracking task during which a series of face pairs were presented (happy, angry, or sad face paired with a neutral face). Overall attention measures included attention-holding (total looking time) and attention-orienting (latency to faces); affect-biased attention measures included proportion of total looking time to emotional faces and latency difference score. Results: Higher maternal pregnancy-related anxiety across gestation predicted decreased infant attention-holding to affective faces [F(1,80) = 7.232, p =.009, partial η2 = 0.083]. No differences were found in infant attention-orienting or affect-biased attention. Limitations: Reliance on a correlational study design precludes the ability to make causal inferences. Conclusions: Maternal pregnancy-related anxiety is an important predictor of child outcomes. We provide novel evidence that pregnancy-related anxiety predicts infant attention to emotional faces, behaviors which have important implications for socioemotional development. Providers may consider pregnancy-related anxiety as a target for screening and treatment that may benefit both pregnant individual and offspring.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)104-114
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Affective Disorders
StatePublished - Jan 1 2024


  • Anxiety
  • Attention
  • Eye-tracking
  • Fetal programming
  • Infancy
  • Pregnancy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Clinical Psychology


Dive into the research topics of 'Maternal anxiety during pregnancy predicts infant attention to affective faces'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this