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.

Anxious parents show higher physiological synchrony with their infants

Smith, C., Jones, E., Charman, T., Clackson, K., Mirza, F., & Wass, S. 2019. Psychological Medicine

Interpersonal processes influence our physiological states and associated affect. Physiological arousal dysregulation, a core feature of anxiety disorders, has been identified in children of parents with elevated anxiety. However, little is understood about how parent–infant interpersonal regulatory processes differ when the dyad includes a more anxious parent.

We investigated moment-to-moment fluctuations in arousal within parent-infant dyads using miniaturised microphones and autonomic monitors. We continually recorded arousal and vocalisations in infants and parents in naturalistic home settings across day-long data segments.

Our results indicated that physiological synchrony across the day was stronger in dyads including more rather than less anxious mothers. Across the whole recording epoch, less anxious mothers showed responsivity that was limited to ‘peak’ moments in their child's arousal. In contrast, more anxious mothers showed greater reactivity to small-scale fluctuations. Less anxious mothers also showed behaviours akin to ‘stress buffering’ – downregulating their arousal when the overall arousal level of the dyad was high. These behaviours were absent in more anxious mothers.

Our findings have implications for understanding the differential processes of physiological co-regulation in partnerships where a partner is anxious, and for the use of this understanding in informing intervention strategies for dyads needing support for elevated levels of anxiety.

Infant effortful control mediates relations between nondirective parenting and internalising-related child behaviours in an autism-enriched infant cohort

Smith, C., Jones, E., Wass, S., Pasco, G., Johnson, M., Charman, & Wan, M. 2021. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

Internalising problems are common within Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD); early intervention to support those with emerging signs may be warranted. One promising signal lies in how individual differences in temperament are shaped by parenting. Our longitudinal study of infants with and without an older sibling with ASD investigated how parenting associates with infant behavioural inhibition (8–14 months) and later effortful control (24 months) in relation to 3-year internalising symptoms. Mediation analyses suggest nondirective parenting (8 months) was related to fewer internalising problems through an increase in effortful control. Parenting did not moderate the stable predictive relation of behavioural inhibition on later internalising. We discuss the potential for parenting to strengthen protective factors against internalising in infants from an ASD-enriched cohort.