Date of Award

January 2020

Document Type


Degree Name

Medical Doctor (MD)



First Advisor

Helena Rutherford

Second Advisor

Andres Martin


Maternal anxiety is highly prevalent during pregnancy and the postpartum period and is associated with disruptions to children’s socioemotional development. These long-term outcomes are thought to be mediated in part by anxiety’s effects on parenting and parental sensitivity to infant cues. Recent event-related potential (ERP) studies have found a positive association between generalized anxiety symptoms during the perinatal time and enhanced sustained processing of neutral infant faces. It has been suggested that for perinatal women with anxiety, the uncertainty of how an infant with a neutral expression may be feeling could be experienced as distressing, leading to enhanced sustained neural processing. While past studies employed measures of generalized anxiety, it has been suggested that measures of pregnancy-related anxiety may more specifically capture the worry domains and symptoms specific to maternal anxiety. In addition, little is known about the relationship between maternal anxiety and intolerance of uncertainty or about how maternal anxiety affects expectant mothers’ emotional responses to infant faces. In this study, 43 pregnant women in their third trimester were recruited from the community and viewed photographs of neutral and distress infant faces while undergoing continuous EEG recording. Participants rated their certainty of how each infant felt, their emotional response to each infant, and completed self-report measures of generalized anxiety, pregnancy-specific anxiety, intolerance of uncertainty, and depression. Findings suggest that while generalized anxiety symptoms are associated

with enhanced sustained neural processing of neutral infant faces in pregnant women, pregnancy-related anxiety is not. Further, an association approaching significance was found between increased generalized anxiety and decreased sustained neural processing of distress infant faces. No evidence was found that either intolerance of uncertainty or ratings of certainty for how neutral infants feel moderated maternal anxiety’s effects on enhanced sustained neural processing of neutral infant faces. Future work would benefit from a longitudinal approach to assess the progression of anxiety’s influence on infant cue perception throughout the transition to parenthood in both men and women. In addition, further studies should explore the neural processing of infant cues in maternal samples with clinical levels of anxiety.


This thesis is restricted to Yale network users only. It will be made publicly available on 08/31/2023