Perceived urgency and physiological reactivity predict maternal behaviors in infant affect regulation during a simulated cry response task

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Young infants need their caregivers to help them regulate their affect. When the caregiver does this successfully, infants gradually learn to regulate their affect themselves. However, regulating the affect of the infant is challenging for new parents; they have to learn which methods are effective from the signals the baby emits. To interpret these signals, caregivers have to be in control of their own emotions as well, which might be more difficult if an infant is hard to soothe, since research has shown that exposure to infant cries leads to strong physiological arousal (Donovan & Leavitt, 1989). The current study investigated with a simulated cry response task whether perceptions of a crying infant and physiological reactions were influenced by difficulty of regulating the infant’s affect. We were also
interested in whether this had an effect on the response latency and the amount and consistency of the caregiver’s responses. This study has been executed with first-time pregnant women, because we expected them to be able to relate to this task more than any other group of non-parent adults, while their responses were not colored by previous parenting experiences. 179 women (age 18-40 years) who were pregnant with their first child participated at 22 weeks of pregnancy in a computerized cry response task involving audio taped baby cries. They listened to 2x10 baby cries during which they could choose one of four responses (feeding, distracting, changing the diaper or picking up the infant) to terminate the cry. The first series of cries simulated an easy to regulate infant (soothing success rate 80%, short cry duration); the second series represented a difficult to regulate infant (soothing success
rate 20%, longer cry duration). After each series, the women filled out four questions regarding their perception of the cries. Physiological reactivity was measured using the VU-AMS (De Geus & Van Doornen, 1996), an ambulatory device that records ECG and ICG, allowing calculation of indicators of sympathetic (PEP; pre-ejection
period) and parasympathetic nervous system activity (RSA: respiratory sinus arrhythmia). The cries of the difficult infant were perceived as more urgent, stressful, unpleasant and piercing (p<.01) than the cries of the easy infant. Women also gave more responses (p<.001) and changed their responses more often (p<.001) for the difficult infant. Perceived urgency was positively related to faster responses (p<.01), a larger number of responses (p=.064) and more altered responses (p<.01). Preliminary physiological data (n=76) showed that lower PEP (more sympathetic
stress) was related to faster (p<.05) and more responses (p<.01). Longer, difficult to calm crying alters pregnant women’s perceptions of the meaning of the cries. Differences in perception and arousal may partly explain response tendencies to crying infants. Heightened physiological arousal may lead to excessive soothing behaviors.Nurturing Role Questionnaire) at 32 weeks of pregnancy (T1) and 3 months after birth (T2). Prenatally (at T1), these mothers stated that they would prefer to breastfeed as opposed to bottle-feed their infants. With respect to the postnatal breastfeeding questionnaire (at T2), mothers rated on 5-point Likert scales whether they 1) experienced breastfeeding as very difficult to very easy and 2) whether they experienced breastfeeding as very tiring to not tiring. The preliminary results of two hierarchical regression analyses, with PSE T1 scores entered first, indicated that mothers who experienced breastfeeding as easier or less tiring increased in PSE from T1 to T2 (respectively = .16, p < .05 and = .18, p < .01). PSE scores at both time points were not related to breastfeeding at T2. A subset of the mothers (n = 77) stopped to breastfeed their infants before three months of age. The mothers who indicated that they stopped earlier than planned had marginally lower PSE scores at T2 as opposed to mothers who did not stop earlier than planned (p = .08). For health care practices, the current findings emphasize the importance of supporting mothers’ early experiences with breastfeeding, especially since success-based efficacy beliefs are related to positive parenting and child outcomes.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)94-94
JournalInfant Mental Health Journal
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2012
EventWorld Association for Infant Mental Health 13th Biennial World Congress -
Duration: 17 Apr 201221 Apr 2012


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