Failure to respond to a baby’s signals may lead to behavioural problems in later life.
As any parent knows, newborn babies cry at the top of their lungs. They cannot say why they are crying, so parents must guess what is causing the problem. Is it time for a nappy change? Is the baby hungry? Does she have stomach ache, perhaps?
It is not critical for an infant’s development that the parent always comes up with the correct response immediately, but it is important that the parent is attentive to the baby’s distress and is able to be flexible and try different ways to help the baby to overcome feelings of discomfort. A fundamental aspect of parent–child interaction is sensitivity – i.e. the parent’s ability to understand the baby’s facial expressions and gestures and to use them to interpret the infant’s needs. This could be called the maternal instinct, but the same holds true for the father and all other adults who are in contact with babies.
“It is also a question of how well the parents regulate their own arousal and act in stressful situations without getting agitated themselves,” says Academy Research Fellow Mikko Peltola from the University of Tampere in Finland.
If an adult is not sensitive in detecting the baby’s signals and the infant’s calls for attention are ignored, the baby may end up demanding attention even more strongly or retreating from interaction.
This has a direct impact on the baby’s emotional development.
“If parents are sensitive enough, children are more able to express their feelings openly and regulate them,” Peltola says.
“For example, if a baby becomes distressed while being separated from her parent, she is able to calm down and get back to exploring the environment when the parent returns rather than being inconsolable even when the parent is holding her,” Peltola says.
Problems of sensitivity to the baby’s signals increase the risk of behavioural problems in later life. The quality of early interaction also affects the development of the child’s empathy and social competence, the ability to get along with peers.
At the University of Tampere, the TransParent research project is investigating how the perception of infant signals develops during – and even before – pregnancy. Computerised tasks are used to measure the ability of adults to identify a baby’s emotions and regulate their own arousal in the stressful situation of being exposed to prolonged crying.
Saliva samples are also collected to measure the adults’ levels of oxytocin and testosterone hormones. Previous studies have shown that these hormones are related to parental sensitivity. Oxytocin has even been called the “love hormone” because it stimulates nurturing behaviours in mammals and plays a key role in, among other things, inducing labour and breastfeeding.
The first phase of the study involves women at different stages of the transition to parenthood: women living in a steady relationship without children, women at different stages of pregnancy, and mothers with young children. The aim is to investigate whether there are differences between these groups in the perception of babies’ facial expressions and crying.
The second phase of the study begins when the participants’ babies have been born and are a few months old. At that point, the study examines whether the mother’s sensitivity during pregnancy is related to her sensitivity during interactions with her baby. If such links are found, the quality of interaction between the mother and the baby could be predicted to some extent by measurements already during pregnancy.
“If the quality of interaction can be predicted, parental sensitivity could be influenced and supported already during pregnancy,” Peltola explains.
The research project began at the University of Tampere last autumn and the empirical phase of study will begin in the spring of 2018.
Maternal depression is known to pose a risk to mother–child interaction. The final step of the TransParent study is to undertake a pilot intervention in which mothers who are depressed during pregnancy are presented with attention training that is designed to increase sensitivity to infant signals.
According to Peltola, Finnish maternity clinics already have good methods for detecting maternal depression and anxiety symptoms, and some of the interaction problems may be prevented by treating those symptoms. However, it is not easy to influence the eventual quality of communication between the parent and the baby before the birth of the child.
“One of the motivations for the research is that in the future we could develop applicable tools for evaluating parental sensitivity,” Peltola says.
There are large variations in people’s sensitivity. Not all of us are automatically sensitive to perceiving other people’s feelings, even in the absence of depression or anxiety.
“Anxiety, for example, may affect sensitivity in interaction with the baby. However, problems of parent–child interaction can also occur without any clear parental mood problems,” Peltola adds.
“Such problems are usually identified at child health clinics, but a lot of variation in parental sensitivity relevant to child development may still remain undetected. We hope to provide a deeper understanding of parental sensitivity and its development with this study,” Peltola says.
Studying the first steps of human interaction
• Sensitivity means the parent’s ability to detect and interpret a baby’s emotions, focus attention on the infant and respond to the baby’s signals in a timely, consistent and gentle manner.
• The TransParent study is being conducted using computer tasks, physiological measurements and interaction observation at the Faculty of Social Sciences’ Human Information Processing Laboratory. In addition, saliva samples are being collected in order to determine hormone levels.
• Academy Research Fellow Mikko Peltola is directing the study.
Text: Tiina Lankinen
Photograph: Jonne Renvall