• Journal Article

A neural explanation of fetal heart rate patterns: A test of the polyvagal theory


Reed, S. F., Ohel, G., David, R., & Porges, S. (1999). A neural explanation of fetal heart rate patterns: A test of the polyvagal theory. Developmental Psychobiology, 35(2), 108-118. DOI: 10.1002/(SICI)1098-2302(199909)35:2<108::AID-DEV4>3.0.CO;2-N


The current study applies a neurophysiological model based on the Polyvagal Theory (Porges, 1995) to interpret fetal heart rate patterns. Beat-to-beat heart rate data from 7 fetuses monitored during the first and second stages of labor were analyzed. Transitory heart rate accelerations and reduced beat-to-beat variability reliably preceded heart rate decelerations. The data are interpreted within the context of the Polyvagal Theory, which provides a plausible explanation of the neurophysiological mechanisms that mediate fetal heart rate decelerations. Specifically, it is proposed that both the transitory heart rate accelerations and the depression of the respiratory rhythm in the beat-to-beat heart rate pattern reflect a withdrawal of the vagal tone determined by myelinated vagal pathways originating in the nucleus ambiguus. Functionally, withdrawal of vagal tone originating in the nucleus ambiguus results in the cardiac pacemaker becoming vulnerable to sympathetic influences and to the more-primitive unmyelinated vagal pathways originating in the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus, which may contribute to clinically relevant bradycardia. (C) 1999 John Wiley & Sons, Inc