UEL Baby Dev Lab

Parents Mimic and Influence Their Infant’s Autonomic State through Dynamic Affective State Matching

Wass, S., Smith, C., Clackson, K., Gibb, C., Eitzenberger, J., & Mirza, F. 2019. Current Biology

When we see someone experiencing an emotion, and when we experience it ourselves, common neurophysiological activity occurs [1, 2]. But although inter-dyadic synchrony, concurrent and sequential [3], has been identified, its functional significance remains inadequately understood. Specifically, how do influences of partner A on partner B reciprocally influence partner A? For example, if I am experiencing an affective state and someone matches their physiological state to mine, what influence does this have on me—the person experiencing the emotion? Here, we investigated this using infant-parent dyads. We developed miniaturized microphones to record spontaneous vocalizations and wireless autonomic monitors to record heart rate, heart rate variability, and movement in infants and parents concurrently in naturalistic settings. Overall, we found that infant-parent autonomic activity did not covary across the day—but that “high points” of infant arousal led to autonomic changes in the parent and that instances where the adult showed greater autonomic responsivity were associated with faster infant quieting. Parental responsivity was higher following peaks in infant negative affect than in positive affect. Overall, parents responded to increases in their child’s arousal by increasing their own. However, when the overall arousal level of the dyad was high, parents responded to elevated child arousal by decreasing their own arousal. Our findings suggest that autonomic state matching has a direct effect on the person experiencing the affective state and that parental co-regulation may involve both connecting and disconnecting their own arousal state from that of the child contingent on context.