Reduced birth weight predisposes to cardiovascular diseases in later life. We examined in fetal sheep at 0.76 (n = 18) and 0.87 (n = 17) gestation whether spontaneously occurring variations in fetal weight affect maturation of autonomic control of cardiovascular function. Fetal weights at both gestational ages were grouped statistically in low (LW) and normal weights (NW) (P < 0.01). LW fetuses were within the normal weight span showing minor growth dysproportionality at 0.76 gestation favouring heart and brain, with a primary growth of carcass between 0.76 and 0.87 gestation (P < 0.05). While twins largely contributed to LW fetuses, weight differences between singletons and twins were absent at 0.76 and modest at 0.87 gestation, underscoring the fact that twins belong to normality in fetal sheep not constituting a major malnutritive condition. Mean fetal blood pressure (FBP) of all fetuses was negatively correlated to fetal weight at 0.76 but not 0.87 gestation (P < 0.05). At this age, FBP and baroreceptor reflex sensitivity were increased in LW fetuses (P < 0.05), suggesting increased sympathetic activity and immaturity of circulatory control. Development of vagal modulation of fetal heart rate depended on fetal weight (P < 0.01). These functional associations were largely independent of twin pregnancies. We conclude, low fetal weight within the normal weight span is accompanied by a different trajectory of development of sympathetic blood pressure and vagal heart rate control. This may contribute to the development of elevated blood pressure in later life. Examination of the underlying mechanisms and consequences may contribute to the understanding of programming of cardiovascular diseases.
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