Maturation of the autonomic nervous system: differences in heart rate variability in premature vs. term infants

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Heart rate variability (HRV) reveals information on the functional state of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). This study was initiated to assess the physiological- and maturational development of the ANS by comparing HRV data of healthy prematures with term infants.


Short-term recordings of HRV in 39 premature healthy infants (29–35 weeks' gestation) were performed and compared with normative data of term infants. Frequency domain HRV parameters are computed in three frequency bands.


Gestational age of newborn infants is correlated with HRV. Prematures showed significant lower HRV parameters than term infants. The most significant differences were discerned for HRV parameters reflecting parasympathetic activity, whereas the pulse of the baro-receptor reflex was similar for prematures and term infants at 0.07 Hz (0.1 Hz adults). A respiratory peak in the HF-band according to respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), as is common in adults, was not detected for prematures as it is not detected in term infants.


Maturation of the ANS is accompanied by increasing HRV with a pronounced increase of parasympathetic activity. These changes are measurable by short-term recordings. The physiological pulses concerning baroreceptor reflex activity and respiratory modulation were similar in prematures and term infants.

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