UEL Baby Dev Lab

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.