What is it about?

When infants become destressed, their mothers/birthing parents use numerous soothing behaviours to try to calm them. Research suggests that mothers with postpartum depression tend to struggle to soothe their distressed infants. However, it is unclear how soothing signals are transmitted from mothers to infants, how postpartum depression disrupts these, and if treating depressed mothers can improve this process. To better understand these issues, we examined the synchrony between mother and infant physiology (heart rate variability) while healthy and depressed mothers attempted to calm their distressed babies. Healthy mother-infant pairs, as well as pairs affected by postpartum depression were assessed at two time points. We examined the healthy dyads at baseline and 9-weeks later, and examined the depressed dyads before and after the mothers received 9-weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In the healthy dyads, at both time points, mothers’ physiological changes preceded those of their infants, suggesting that the mothers led the soothing ‘dance’. Before CBT in the depressed dyads, the infants’ physiological signals led the interaction. However, after CBT, the synchrony pattern shifted, whereby the mothers’ physiology led the interaction, the same pattern seen in the healthy mothers.

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Why is it important?

The soothing of infants by their mothers during moments of distress helps infants develop the capacity to deal with negative emotions throughout life. This study suggests that when a mother attempts to soothe her infant’s distress, maternal physiology influences her infant in real-time. We also provide the first evidence showing that treating postpartum depression could improve mother-baby synchrony patterns and mothers’ ability to sooth their distressed babies.


“This study not only sheds light on how mothers transmit soothing signals to their distressed infants in real-time, but suggests that treating postpartum depression may enhance these signals. We hope that this work can support efforts to increase access to treatments for mothers and birthing parents with postpartum depression.”

John Krzeczkowski

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Follow the leader: Maternal transmission of physiological regulatory support to distressed infants in real-time., Journal of Psychopathology and Clinical Science, June 2022, American Psychological Association (APA), DOI: 10.1037/abn0000760.
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