Improve Infants’ Neurocognitive Development with Mindfulness during Pregnancy

Mindfulness infant auditory attention2 Van den Heuvel

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“If the mother is producing more stress hormones, they’re going to be transmitted to the fetus. Everything we do impacts the fetus. It’s kind of a marvelous thing. The fetus is getting information about what kind of a world it will be born into.” – Amy Beddoe


Pregnancy can be a time of heightened emotionality. This emotionality in the mother can affect the fetus. During pregnancy, the fetus is sensitive to the state of the mother and maternal anxiety can affect the fetus and continue to do so after birth. It has been demonstrated that mindfulness can help. Mindfulness training has been shown to improve anxiety and depression normally and to relieve maternal anxiety and depression during pregnancy. But, it is not known if mindfulness, independent of the mother’s psychological well-being, affects the fetus in utero and continues to do so after birth.


During the early development of the infant hearing and being attentive to sounds is important. In some species the first portions of the auditory system to develop are those tuned to the mother’s voice. Sounds are important cues to the infant of the state of the people around them and are signals of safety or potential danger. It is also important to language acquisition, as the first stage in learning to speak is hearing language in the environment. So, auditory attention is important to the development of the infant.


The infant cannot self-report what they hear and what they don’t and what they are paying attention to. So, in order to measure the infant’s capabilities, indirect methods are needed to assess auditory attention and processing. One method is to measure the electrical signals from the nervous system that can be recorded from the infant’s scalp in response to sounds. These are called auditory event related potentials (ERPs). The P150 component of the ERP (positive wave 150 milliseconds after the sound) has been shown to be an indicator of attention to the sound while the N250 component of the ERP (negative wave 250 milliseconds after the sound) has been shown to be an indicator of orientation to a particular sound. Hence, these electrical signals from the brain can be employed to provide a glimpse of the neurocognitive auditory processing of the infant.


In today’s Research News article “Maternal mindfulness and anxiety during pregnancy affect infants’ neural responses to sounds”

Van den Heuvel and colleagues measured mindfulness and anxiety levels in pregnant women during each trimester of their pregnancy and 10 months postpartum. Then at 9-months of age, the mothers’ newborn infants were tested for auditory event related potentials (ERPs). ERPs were recorded in response to a repetitive sound and to new different sounds infrequently inserted into the stream of sounds. To relax the infant during the recordings, they sat on their mothers’ lap.


They found, as have others, that during pregnancy, the more mindful the mothers, the less anxious they were. They also found that there were significant opposite effects of maternal mindfulness and anxiety during pregnancy on how infants processed repetitive sounds. Infants whose mothers were high in mindfulness during pregnancy had larger P150 waves and smaller N250 waves. In contrast, infants whose mothers were more anxious during pregnancy had higher N250 waves. These effects were present for the repetitive sound, but there was no difference in the ERPs to the unusual sound.


The larger P150 wave suggests that the infants from mindful mothers were paying closer attention to the sounds and processing them more deeply while the smaller N250 wave suggests that the infants had reduced orientation to the sound. This indicates that they better recognized that they’ve heard this sound many times already. In contrast, the infants form mothers who were high in anxiety during pregnancy had larger N250 waves suggesting that they were overresponsive to repetitive stimuli. In addition, the infants of mindful mothers were not different in their responsiveness to a novel sound. These results further suggest that the infants of mothers who were mindful during pregnancy had more mature processing of sounds than infants whose mothers were low in mindfulness or high in anxiety.


These are remarkable results. The mother’s state of mindfulness during pregnancy not only affects the mother but positively affects the postnatal neural development of the infant. In contrast, the mothers state of anxiety during pregnancy negatively affects the postnatal neural development of the infant. The mechanisms of these effects are not known but it can be speculated that mindfulness’ ability to reduce the physiological and psychological responses to stress may produce greater calmness and relaxation in the mother during the difficult time of pregnancy and thereby reduce the stress on the infant. Conversely, high anxiety levels during pregnancy would be expected to heighten stress responses, negatively affecting the fetus. It will remain for future research to examine this hypothesis.


So, improve infants’ neurocognitive development with mindfulness during pregnancy.


“If I could choose only one tool you would take with you from . . . practice, it would be the capacity to be present. Being present forms the foundation for mindful motherhood. It’s the key to being a mindful mom. If being nonjudgmental, accepting, curious, and compassionate, and observing your experience and letting it be as it is without struggling against it are some of the rooms that make up the house of mindful motherhood, being in the present moment is the foundation of the house.” – Cassandra Vieten


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Study Summary

RESEARCH NEWS – Mindfulness during pregnancy improves the infant’s postnatal neurocognitive development.


Van den Heuvel, M. I., Donkers, F. C. L., Winkler, I., Otte, R. A., & Van den Bergh, B. R. H. (2015). Maternal mindfulness and anxiety during pregnancy affect infants’ neural responses to sounds. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 10(3), 453–460.



Maternal anxiety during pregnancy has been consistently shown to negatively affect offspring neurodevelopmental outcomes. However, little is known about the impact of positive maternal traits/states during pregnancy on the offspring. The present study was aimed at investigating the effects of the mother’s mindfulness and anxiety during pregnancy on the infant’s neurocognitive functioning at 9 months of age. Mothers reported mindfulness using the Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory and anxiety using the Symptom Checklist (SCL-90) at ±20.7 weeks of gestation. Event-related brain potentials (ERPs) were measured from 79 infants in an auditory oddball paradigm designed to measure auditory attention—a key aspect of early neurocognitive functioning. For the ERP responses elicited by standard sounds, higher maternal mindfulness was associated with lower N250 amplitudes (P < 0.01, η2 = 0.097), whereas higher maternal anxiety was associated with higher N250 amplitudes (P < 0.05, η2 = 0.057). Maternal mindfulness was also positively associated with the P150 amplitudes (P < 0.01, η2 = 0.130). These results suggest that infants prenatally exposed to higher levels of maternal mindfulness devote fewer attentional resources to frequently occurring irrelevant sounds. The results show that positive traits and experiences of the mother during pregnancy may also affect the unborn child. Emphasizing the beneficial effects of a positive psychological state during pregnancy may promote healthy behavior in pregnant women.


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