Anxious mothers exhibit increased physiological synchrony with their infants, study finds


Mothers with high levels of anxiety tend to be more physiologically “in tune” with their infants, according to new research published in the journal Psychological medicine. The stress response of less anxious mothers, on the other hand, is less closely related to their infants.

The results suggest that anxiety symptoms influence how parents and their infants regulate stress, which could have important implications for children’s psychological development.

“I have long been interested in the intergenerational transmission of stress and anxiety states from parent to infant, as well as how emotional deregulation develops early in life,” said the author of the study. Celia Smith, doctoral student at King’s College London. “I’m also incredibly curious about how our experiences of stress seem personally situated and internally regulated – but, in practice, they arise from the emotional states of those around us; of our relationships.

In the study, 68 mothers and their 12-month-old wore miniature microphones, video cameras, EKGs, and actigraphs at home, allowing researchers to measure fluctuations in excitation from moment to moment. other in a natural setting. The wearable devices recorded the heart rate, heart rate variability, level of physical activity and vocalizations of the participants. The mothers also had an assessment for current anxiety symptoms.

“We have worked with families from a wide range of socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds, which means our research has broad relevance to the general public,” Smith explained. “And we used innovative research methods in this study that allowed us to work with families in their own homes, without the presence of researchers. This meant that we weren’t limited to lab settings – which aren’t the best place to measure genuine stress states – and could make our research more representative of the real world.

Researchers found that higher levels of maternal anxiety were associated with higher physiological synchrony. In other words, the arousal level of anxious mothers tended to match the arousal level of their infants. Anxious and non-anxious mothers exhibited physiological responsiveness in response to large-scale changes in infant arousal, but anxious mothers also exhibited responsiveness to small-scale fluctuations in their infant.

The results indicate “that stress and anxiety are emotional states that are shared and transmitted between individuals, particularly in the context of close parent-child relationships found early in development. In our study, we show this biologically, with anxious parents and infants tending to have very close stress states throughout the day, ”Smith told PsyPost.

“We also suggest that parental anxiety plays a role in infant self-regulation. Our study showed that anxious parents are “always active”; they tend to overreact physiologically to minor stress in their infants. This is compared to non-anxious parents, who are “there when you need me”; they only react to more extreme infantile stress.

“The parenting style of being ‘always active’ is associated with slower infant recovery after upsetting times. As anxious parents, therefore, we might want to develop a greater bodily awareness of our response to infant distress, particularly in regards to how it affects the emotional development of the child, ”Smith explained.

The new findings provide insight into the relationship between parental anxiety and parent-child stress regulation, and provide a basis for future investigations into how parents can better manage symptoms of anxiety. But Smith noted that the “results of this study are only preliminary” at this point.

“We would need to conduct this study with many more families before making certain claims or recommendations,” she explained. “We also did not include parents with severe mental illness in our study, nor parents of more diverse genders, and this is something we would like to do in the future to make sure we can generalize to these. groups.

“A big question for us, and for future research, is how best to support anxious parents during the perinatal period, so that we can help both parent and infant to thrive,” Smith added.

The study, “Anxious parents show higher physiological synchrony with their infantsWas written by CG Smith, EJH Jones, T. Charman, K. Clackson, FU Mirza and SV Wass.

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