Mothers’ and babies’ brains can work together as a ‘mega-network’ by synchronising brain waves when they interact.
The level of connectivity of the brain waves varies according to the mum’s emotional state: when mothers express more positive emotions their brain becomes much more strongly connected with their baby’s brain.
This may help the baby to learn and its brain to develop.
The research, published in the journal NeuroImage, used a method called dual electroencephalograhy (EEG) to look at brain signals in both mums and babies while they were interacting with each other.
They found that mums and babies tend to synchronise their brain waves – an effect known as interpersonal neural connectivity – particularly in the frequency of 6-9 hertz, the infant alpha range.
By looking at the qualities and structure of the interpersonal neural connectivity using a mathematical method of network analysis, the researchers could see how information flowed within each separate brain, and also how the two brains operated together as a network.
Mothers and babies tend to spend a lot of time together in a positive emotional state, in which their brains are very connected.
The study found that positive interaction, with lots of eye contact, enhances the ability of mother and infant brains to operate as a single system.
This promotes efficient sharing and flow of information between mother and infant.
“From our previous work, we know that when the neural connection between mothers and babies is strong, babies are more receptive and ready to learn from their mothers,” said Dr Vicky Leong in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychology, who led the study
“At this stage of life, the baby brain has the ability to change significantly, and these changes are driven by the baby’s experiences.
By using a positive emotional tone during social interactions, parents can connect better with their infants, and stimulate development of their baby’s mental capacity.”
The results also suggest that babies of depressed mothers may show less evidence of learning because of a weakened neural connection between mother and infant
Mothers who experience a persistently low or negative mental state due to clinical depression tend to have less interaction with their baby.
Their speech is often flatter in tone, they make much less eye contact, and they are less likely to respond when their baby tries to get their attention.
“Depression can have a powerfully negative effect on a parent’s ability to establish connections with their baby. All the social cues that normally foster connection are less readily available to the child, so the child doesn’t receive the optimal emotional input it needs to thrive.”
Mother and baby interacting. The image is credited to University of Cambridge.
Emotional communication between parents and their children is crucial during early life, yet little is known about its neural underpinnings.
This is the first brain imaging study of two related individuals to investigate if and how babies’ interpersonal neural connectivity with their mothers is affected by the emotional quality of their social interaction.
As a social species, humans share emotional states with others. This work shows how emotions change the connection between two individuals at a neural level.
The researchers say that their findings apply to many other types of affiliative bond, including between couples, close friends, and siblings, where each person is highly attuned to the other. The strength of the effect is likely to depend on how well the two people know each other and the level of trust between them.
In Western society and in today’s media, the transition into motherhood (or having another baby) is represented as a joyful and exciting time as this is assumed to be a period of emotional growth that emerges naturally (Winson, 2009).
For many mothers, this idealistic image is not a close representation of their experience of this transition, as having a baby can be stressful and challenging (Ben-Ari et al., 2009; Kwon et al., 2013). Stress in mothers involves the extent to which mothers perceive themselves as having access to the resources required to carry out the parenting role (Belsky, 1984).
Mothers of newborn children often juggle between holding on to their old life and adapting to newly gained responsibilities, including the regulation of the child sleeping and eating pattern, continuous availability, and regular worries about their infants’ health and development (Hung, 2007). These newly gained responsibilities affect career paths, sleeping patterns, romantic relations, and identities, that can get lost in the role of being a mother (Dew and Wilcox, 2011; Epifanio et al., 2015).
Further, toddlerhood places distinctive tasks and challenges on parents with regard to the different developmental needs of children, such as the onset of independence, willfulness, and social competence (Edwards and Liu, 2002; Kwon et al., 2013). Thus, whereas being a mother is expected to bring joy, motherhood in the early years also brings distress upon a lot of mothers.
Elevated or recurrent levels of stress can lead to chronic stress, which increases the risk of mental health problems (Lupien et al., 2009). A remarkable high percentage of the new mothers develops depression (19.2%) or anxiety disorder (11.1%) in the first 3 months after child birth (Gaynes et al., 2005; Reck et al., 2008), and during toddlerhood elevated stress levels continue to predict depression and anxiety (Mathiesen et al., 1999).
Stress and mental health problems are not only harmful to caregivers themselves, but also to children. The high rate of psychopathology and impaired functioning in the offspring of caregivers with, for instance, anxiety or depression, compared with caregivers without mental health problems is one of the best reproduced findings in psychiatry (e.g., Eley et al., 2015; Weissman et al., 2016). Anxious, depressed, or highly distressed parents have shown to lack frequent mentalizing and sensitive parenting behaviors during interactions (Nicol-Harper et al., 2007; Feldman et al., 2009; Pawlby et al., 2010; McMahon and Meins, 2012), which may evoke poor quality of parent–child interactions (Crnic et al., 2005).
Low-quality interactions, in turn, impede the child’s optimal development and increases the risk of socio-emotional problems, such as perceived temperamental difficulties and insecure attachment representations (Crnic et al., 2005; Henrichs et al., 2009). Understanding how we may prevent or reduce parental stress seems therefore an important goal for mental health care sciences.
Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention in the present moment to whatever appears and observing it non-judgmentally and without reactivity (Brown and Ryan, 2003; Kabat-Zinn, 2003; Creswell and Lindsay, 2014). Practice in mindfulness meditation have been shown to be effective in improving stress regulation (Khoury et al., 2015).
The past two decades, the application of mindfulness in the context of parenting stress (i.e., mindful parenting) is growing (Bögels et al., 2010). Mindful parenting interventions are relationally oriented and aim to stimulate parents to focus mindful attention on parent–child interactions (Cohen and Semple, 2010).
During mindful parenting training, parents learn to observe and listen to their child in a special way: deliberately, with full attention, and without judgment. Further, they learn to recognize and to make a distinction between their own emotions and those of the child, to lower parental reactivity in parent–child interactions, and to feel compassionate for themselves and their child (Duncan et al., 2015).
An adaptation of mindful parenting addressing mothers who experience stress in taking care of their young children is the Mindful with your baby/toddler training (Potharst et al., 2017, 2018). Mindful with your baby/toddler is a group training (Bögels and Restifo, 2013), involving meditation exercises based on mindfulness-based stress reduction training (MBSR; Kabat-Zinn, 1990), and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT; Segal et al., 2002, 2012).
The training is adapted to the context of parenting in early childhood and to the presence of the young children in the training. Other important elements of the training are inquiry, in which participants share their experiences during mediations, and psycho-education about themes related to both mindfulness and child development (i.e., the circle of security is introduced as a frame of reference for looking at attachment-related behavior of the children; Powell et al., 2013).
In the Mindful with your baby/toddler training, parents not only learn to increase their awareness of inner experiences in the present moment, but also in the presence of, and in relation to their child. They learn to be attentive to their child and the child’s signals, and practice mindfulness in stressful situations (Potharst et al., 2017, 2018). Having their child by their side during the training (in most of the sessions) helps mothers to apply what they learn during training to daily life experiences with their child.
Two previous studies on the effects of the Mindful with your baby/toddler training on mother and child outcomes showed positive effects on a wide variety of mother and child outcomes (Potharst et al., 2017, 2018).
In the first study including 37 mothers and their 0 to 18-months-old infants, mothers reported significantly higher scores on questionnaires on mindfulness, self-compassion, mindful parenting, as well as on well-being, psychopathology, parental confidence, responsivity, and hostility at posttest, 8-week follow-up, and 1-year follow-up (Potharst et al., 2017). In the second study (Potharst et al., 2018), including 18 mother–toddler dyads (aged 18–48 months), mothers reported positive changes in child psychopathology, mindfulness (awareness and non-reactivity), and self-compassion and these changes sustained or further improved during the follow-up period. Further, mothers reported lower levels of child dysregulation, maternal internalizing psychopathology, maternal stress, sense of incompetence, and higher levels of non-judging of inner experience, but only at the 2- and 8-months follow-up. Mothers also showed more sensitive and accepting behaviors during observations at posttest in this study.
These two studies provided first indications that the Mindful with your baby/toddler training may be beneficial, not only for the mother, but also for the mother–child relationship. However, the results on the mother–child relationship were either based on a small sample size (n = 18) of mother–toddler dyads, or based on maternal self-report, while this is not sufficient to measure parent–child interaction (Miron et al., 2009).
When investigating change in complex transactional relationships such as the mother–child relationship, survey data may be biased by social-desirability of participants, or bias in interpretations of questions, and limitations with regard to the operationalization of complex relational constructs (Hops et al., 1995; Dishion and Granic, 2004; Morsbach and Prinz, 2006). Since mindful parenting interventions are designed to bring about changes in the parent–child relationship, observational measures of both parenting behavior and the parent–child relationship quality should be included in effectiveness studies (Duncan et al., 2015).
In the present study we, therefore, investigated the effects of the Mindful with your baby/toddler training observing different features of parenting behaviors and the interaction quality between mothers and their child.
More specifically, we have focused on the following dimensions that have been shown to be particularly important for children’s early development and that are likely to change from mindful parenting training: parental sensitivity, acceptance, mind-mindedness, and dyadic synchrony. Below, we first briefly explain these parenting behaviors and characteristics, as well as their importance in predicting adaptive child development. We then explain why and how mindful parenting training in general, and the Mindful with your baby/toddler training in particular, might lead to changes in these behaviors and characteristics.
Parental sensitivity refers to the parent’s ability to interpret the child’s (behavioral, physical, and emotional) signals and respond to them in an appropriate and prompt manner. This concept has grown out of observational research attempting to understand variations in children’s secure attachment to their parents (Ainsworth, 1969; Ainsworth et al., 1974, 1978). Sensitivity is assessed from home-based observations of parent–child interaction, by rating the entirety of parenting behaviors shown during the interactions on a scale from 1 to 9 (Ainsworth et al., 1974).
From the same home observations, Ainsworth (1969) developed a scale of acceptance versus rejection. A parent is accepting when there is sufficient balance between positive and negative feelings of the parent toward the child. The accepting parent respects the child’s desire for autonomy, mastery, and negative emotion (anger and frustration).
Acceptance furthermore encapsulates the parent’s ability to empathize with the child, without losing touch with his or her own positive and negative emotions (Ainsworth, 1969). The importance of sensitive and accepting caregiving with regard to children’s adaptive and healthy development has become clear from a large body of research over the past decades. Parental sensitivity and acceptance have shown to predict a wide variety of positive child outcomes, most important children’s secure attachment, affect/stress regulation, and social–emotional competence understanding (e.g., Volling et al., 2002; Hughes et al., 2005; Khaleque and Rohner, 2012; Putnick et al., 2015; Taylor-Colls and Pasco Fearon, 2015; Zeegers et al., 2017).
Mind-mindedness is defined as parents’ tendency to treat their child as a mental agent, an individual with autonomous thoughts, feelings, and desires (Meins, 1997, 2013). This concept also grew out of observational research attempting to understand variations in (in)secure child–parent attachments (Meins, 1997; Meins et al., 2001). In early childhood, mind-mindedness is assessed as parents’ tendency to comment appropriately or in a nonattuned manner on their infant’s presumed internal states during a free-play situation (Meins et al., 2001; Meins and Fernyhough, 2015).
The appropriate and nonattuned indices reflect two orthogonal dimensions of mind-mindedness, unrelated to each other in mothers (Meins et al., 2003, 2012). Appropriate mind-related comments reflect attunement to and validation of the infant’s internal state. Nonattuned comments reflect the extent to which misinterpretations of the infant’s state emerge, and/or when parents project their own state of mind or impose their own agenda on the infant (Meins, 2013).
Greater mind-mindedness is indicated by high levels of appropriate mind-related comments or low levels of nonattuned mind-related comments. Mind-mindedness has shown to be lower in mothers with mental disorders, mothers who experience parenting stress, and in adolescent mothers (Pawlby et al., 2010; McMahon and Meins, 2012; Crugnola et al., 2014). Moreover, next to sensitivity, mind-mindedness has also shown to be an important and independent predictor of secure attachment, emotion regulation, social-emotional functioning in early childhood (Meins et al., 2002; Laranjo et al., 2008; Bernier et al., 2010; Zeegers et al., 2017, 2018).
Dyadic synchrony involves the co-occurrence and coordination of attention (gaze), emotional expressions, and vocalizations during the parent–child interaction (Yale et al., 2003; Colonnesi et al., 2012; Beebe et al., 2016).
The general concept of dyadic synchrony refers to an array of interactive behaviors between parent and child such as responsiveness, reciprocity, mutuality, and shared emotion, typically assessed during face-to-face interactions. In the present study we focus on two forms of parents’ and children’s temporal coordination of behaviors. First, the temporal contingency of facial expressions and gaze (Yale et al., 2003; Colonnesi et al., 2012).
Second, the turn-taking in vocal interaction (Feldstein et al., 1993; Gratier et al., 2015; Beebe et al., 2016), assessing how often the vocalizations of the mother were followed directly by vocalizations of the child and vice versa. Both the synchronous timing and the vocal turn-taking are considered to be important determinants of the quality of early parent–child interaction. That is, both provide children with opportunities to experience the mutual regulation of positive arousal, and to construct the structure of contingency and coordination characteristic of adult communication (Feldman et al., 1999; Leclère et al., 2014).
Symptoms of depression, anxiety, and distress in mothers were shown to be related to disturbances in dyadic synchrony (Feldman, 2007), which is directly linked to infants’ current and later social, emotional, and psychological functioning (Feldman et al., 1999; Moore and Calkins, 2004; Feldman, 2007; Lindsey et al., 2009; Leclère et al., 2014).
Considering the core elements of mindful parenting interventions, and more specifically the core elements of the Mindful with your baby/toddler training, there are several reasons why it is important to study the effects of training on mothers’ sensitivity, acceptance, mind-mindedness, and dyadic synchrony.
First of all, the Mindful with your baby/toddler training involves practice in listening to the child with full attention through mindfulness meditation (Potharst et al., 2017). These practices are thought to improve parents’ attention and receptive awareness to the experiences of the present moment (Brown and Ryan, 2003; Baer and Krietemeyer, 2006). The mindfulness meditations in Mindful with your baby/toddler also aim to improve parents’ self-control and to reduce their immediate reactions to their own thoughts, or feelings and external child-related events. Additionally, parents get the opportunity to practice being attentive to their own and to the child’s inner states by means of individual, and mother–child watching meditations, as well as the inquiry afterward (Siegel and Hartzell, 2003).
These mindful parenting abilities all underlie parents’ tendency to form correct interpretations of children’s behavioral and verbal signals. That is, they reduce the use and influence of automatic cognitive processes, preventing bias in the interpretations of signals (Duncan et al., 2009). In turn, an appropriate interpretation of the child’s signals is at the heart of the concepts of maternal sensitivity and mind-mindedness (Ainsworth et al., 1974; Meins et al., 2001; Meins, 2013). Therefore, mothers are expected to show less insensitive behaviors and greater levels of mind-mindedness after the training.
Another important focus of the Mindful with your baby/toddler training is teaching parents to take a non-judgmental and compassionate stance toward their child’s and their own traits, attributes, and behaviors, which leads to the lower rejecting and dismissing parenting behaviors, as well as respect for the child’s autonomy (Ainsworth, 1969; Duncan et al., 2009; Bögels and Restifo, 2013).
We, therefore, expect that after the training mothers will be more accepting as rated by independent observers. Furthermore, higher levels of compassion for the self and child should also come forward in positive changes in parental acceptance, as more self-compassion would lead to more positive, and less negative, affection in the parent–child relationship (Ainsworth, 1969).
Lastly, the above described mindful parenting behaviors and abilities can also lead to more implicit and embodied forms of attuned caregiving. As mindful parents are sensitive both to the content of conversations as well as their child’s tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language (Duncan et al., 2009), this might also be reflected in more synchronous timing of facial expressions and gazing (Siegel and Hartzell, 2003).
We, furthermore, expected that mothers would show less turn-taking behaviors, as they were stimulated to be attentive to the present moment, in a non-judgmental and non-reactive manner. Additionally, we expected that children would show higher levels of turn-taking (responsiveness) as a result of increases in mothers’ mindful attitude and lower (over)active parenting during mother–child interactions.
The present study evaluated the effects of the Mindful with your baby/toddler training for mothers of young children (aged 0–48 months), who experience parental stress, mother–child interaction problems, and/or whose children experience regulation problems.
A quasi-experimental design was used, with a waitlist assessment, pretest, and posttest. On the basis of the above-mentioned literature, we hypothesized that the Mindful with your baby/toddler training would be effective in reducing parenting stress, but also in improving observed maternal sensitivity, acceptance, mind-mindedness, and mother–child synchrony.
University of Cambridge
Jacqueline Garget – University of Cambridge
Original Research: Open access
“Emotional valence modulates the topology of the parent-infant inter-brain network”. Vicky Leong et al.