The Leuven Synchrony Project
From the very start of life, children grow up in close physical proximity with their caregivers. As a result, biological and behavioural processes become entrained with the partner, preparing the child to live in social groups.
Recent technological advances now allow us to quantify this social attunement in real-life interactions, by simultaneously recording multiple biobehavioural signals from multiple partners and investigating how these co-fluctuate.
In this project, funded by The Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO), new methods will be applied to understand atypical development, by focusing on a cohort of prematurely born preschool children, known to be at risk for atypical socio-emotional development.
At the age of five, biobehavioural synchrony will be assessed across multiple contexts (including 24-hour naturalistic home recordings) and multiple interaction paradigms (including interactions with mother, father and experimenter).
This shared FWO grant between KU Leuven and the BabyDevLab is funding three PhD students, who aim to quantify this biobehavioural synchrony, with regard to EEG, eye gaze, facial and motor mimicry, autonomic nervous system stress physiology, emotion and behaviour, in order to assess the quality of social interactions.
Giovanni Esposito: The early life of children born prematurely can be stressful for the child and their families as babies are placed in NICUs and separated from their parents (Maroney 2003). One study found the mothers of pre-term children aged 12m experienced twice as much stress as parents of children born at term, while parental stress has been linked to child anxiety and behavioural problems. Mother and infant can reciprocally influence each other’s physiological reactivity, which occurs in stress contagion within the dyad. In healthy coregulation, a parent will decrease their arousal when the overall dyadic arousal is high, or ‘stress buffer’ whereas anxious parents have been shown to transmit their high arousal states to their infants. Touch has been found to play a significant role in affect contagion but less is known about other mechanisms or cues. It has been demonstrated that higher intensity parental vocalisations are associated with increased arousal states in parents and infants for parents with high anxiety, indicating one way in which stress may be transmitted through the voice.
Giovanni is investigating how the acoustics of the voice is implicated during stress contagion occurring in the naturalistic setting of the home, including analysis of vocal pitch (which typically rises under psychological stress), vocal affect, as well as the actual speech of parent and child. This investigation will give us insight into how stress is transmitted (or contained) during challenging interactions, with the potential to inform parental emotion regulation strategies.
Rowena Van den Broeck: Preterm birth is associated with a higher prevalence of atypical socio-emotional and cognitive development, often resulting in difficulties with emotion recognition and social interactions. Biobehavioural synchrony, which is the coordination of behavioural and biological processes between interaction partners, is very important during socio-emotional development. Within the context of a large study following the development of prematurely born children since birth, I will firstly assess the sensitivity of preterm children (now 5,5-years-old) to social cues using frequency-tagging EEG. Secondly, I will use dual measurements of gaze behaviours (i.e., eye contact) and facial mimicry during real-life interactions to investigate the biobehavioural synchrony between mother and child, and to further understand the atypical socio-emotional development of prematurely born children.
Lisa Gistelinck: Preterm infants experience a substantial amount of early life stress and this may impact their future arousal regulation and social functioning. The biobehavioural synchrony is a promising framework to unravel the attunement in mother-child dyads and obtain a better understanding of the quality of their relationship. We will acquire a unique longitudinal and multi-modal dataset to provide further insights into the impact of stress on their development. In the present project, I will focus on physiological measurements (e.g. Skin conductance, heart rate variability,…) and examine the individual arousal signals of the child and the mother, their co-fluctuation over time (i.e., synchrony), the extent to which this synchrony is determined by individual arousal levels (both at present and in the early neonatal period), and the extent to which this physiological synchrony relates to the quality of the behavioural and socio-affective relationship.