Autonomic nervous system appears to function well regardless of mode of childbirth

Summary: The autonomic nervous system and cortical systems function similarly in low-risk newborns whether they experienced labor and natural birth or were born via elective cesarean section. However, those who were delivered via C-Section following long periods of labor had increased accelerations in heart rate and lower gamma frequency EEG a day after birth than the other two groups.

Source: Children’s National Health System

Late in pregnancy, the human body carefully prepares fetuses for the rigors of life outside the protection of the womb. Levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, ramp up and spike during labor. Catecholamines, another stress hormone, also rise at birth, helping to kick start the necessary functions that the baby will need to regulate breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure and energy metabolism levels at delivery. Oxytocin surges, promoting contractions for the mother during labor and stimulating milk production after the infant is born.

These processes also can play a role in preparing the fetal brain during the transition to life outside the womb by readying the autonomic nervous system and adapting its cerebral connections. The autonomic nervous system acts like the body’s autopilot, taking in information it needs to ensure that internal organs run steadily without willful action, such as ensuring the heartbeats and eyelids blink at steady intervals. Its yin, the sympathetic division, stimulates body processes while its yang, the parasympathetic division, inhibits them.

Infants born preterm have reduced autonomic function compared with their full-term peers and also face possible serious neurodevelopmental impairment later in life. But is there a difference in autonomic nervous system function for full-term babies after undergoing labor compared with infants delivered via cesarean section (C-section)?

A team from the Children’s National Inova Collaborative Research Program (CNICA) — a research collaboration between Children’s National in Washington, D.C., and Inova Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Virginia — set out to answer that question in a paper published online July 30, 2019, in Scientific Reports.

They enrolled newborns who had experienced normal, full-term pregnancies and recorded their brain function and heart performance when they were about 2 days old. Infants whose conditions were fragile enough to require observation in the neonatal intensive care unit were excluded from the study. Of 167 infants recruited for the prospective cohort study, 118 newborns had sufficiently robust data to include them in the research. Of these newborns:

  • 62 (52.5%) were born by vaginal delivery
  • 22 (18.6%) started out with vaginal delivery but ultimately switched to C-section based on failure to progress, failed labor induction or fetal intolerance to labor
  • And 34 (28.8%) were born by elective C-section.

The CNICA research team swaddled infants for comfort and slipped electrode nets over their tiny heads to simultaneously measure heart rate variability and electrocortical function through non-invasive techniques. The team hypothesized that infants who had been exposed to labor would have enhanced autonomic tone and higher cortical electroencephalogram (EEG) power than babies born via C-section.

“In a low-risk group of babies born full-term, the autonomic nervous system and cortical systems appear to function well regardless of whether infants were exposed to labor prior to birth,” says Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., a fetal-neonatal neurologist in the Division of Fetal and Transitional Medicine at Children’s National and the study’s lead author.

This shows a pregnant woman
While previous research has found an association between playing games and improved recovery after work, the authors attempted to establish a causal connection. The image is in the public domain.

However, infants born by C-section following a period of labor had significantly increased accelerations in their heart rates. And the infants born by C-section during labor had significantly lower relative gamma frequency EEG at 25.2 hours old compared with the other two groups studied.

“Together these findings point to a possible increased stress response and arousal difference in infants who started with vaginal delivery and finished delivery with C-section,” Dr. Mulkey says. “There is so little published research about the neurologic impacts of the mode of delivery, so our work helps to provide a normal reference point for future studies looking at high-risk infants, including babies born preterm.”

Because the research team saw little differences in autonomic tone or other EEG frequencies when the infants were 1 day old, future research will explore these measures at different points in the newborns’ early life as well as the role of the sleep-wake cycle on heart rate variability.

About this neuroscience research article

Children’s National Health System
Media Contacts:
Tony Roddam – Children’s National Health System
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Open access
“The effect of labor and delivery mode on electrocortical and brainstem autonomic function during neonatal transition”. Sarah B. Mulkey, Srinivas Kota, Rathinaswamy B. Govindan, Tareq Al-Shargabi, Christopher B. Swisher, Augustine Eze, Laura Hitchings, Stephanie Russo, Nicole Herrera, Robert McCarter, G. Larry Maxwell, Robin Baker, Adre J. du Plessis.
Scientific Reports. doi:10.1038/s41598-019-47306-1


The effect of labor and delivery mode on electrocortical and brainstem autonomic function during neonatal transition

Delivery of the newborn occurs either vaginally or via caesarean section. It is not known whether the mode of delivery and exposure to labor affects early autonomic nervous system (ANS) function, as measured by heart rate variability (HRV), or cortical electroencephalogram (EEG) activity. The objective of the study was to determine if autonomic function in newborns differs by mode of delivery. Simultaneous recording of EEG and electrocardiogram were collected in low-risk term newborns at <72 hours of age to measure HRV, the asymmetry index, and EEG power. Newborns were compared by delivery type: vaginal delivery (VD), cesarean section (CS) after labor (L-CS), or elective CS (E-CS). Quantile Regression controlled for gestational age, postnatal age, and percent active states. One hundred and eighteen newborns were studied at 25.2 (11.4) hours of age. Sixty-two (52.5%) were born by VD, 22 by L-CS (18.6%), and 34 by E-CS (28.8%). HRV metrics didn’t differ by delivery mode. Asymmetry index was higher in L-CS compared to VD and E-CS (P = 0.03). On EEG, L-CS newborns showed lower relative gamma power compared to VD and E-CS (P = 0.005). The study found that overall ANS tone is not altered by mode of delivery in low-risk term newborns.

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