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Developmental Biology - Mother/Child Bond

High Stress Decreases Mother/Child Attachment

Measuring how parenting stress affects a mother and child's ability to tune in to each other...


Research has found mothers who reported higher levels of parenting stress had less synchrony in brain activity with their child (ages around 3 years old) than those who reported lower levels of parenting stress. Synchronous brain patterns of interaction between mother and child indicate increased parental sensitivity to that child.
prefrontal cortex
CREDIT: Wikimedia.org

The specific brain region monitored was the prefrontal cortex, associated with the ability to understand anothers' point of view. When parent and child show highly similar brain activity in the same area(s) of the brain, it suggests both are highly attuned to each other's emotional state.

Parenting stress occurs when the demands of parenting exceed the coping resources a parent perceives they have available. Excessive parenting stress can block maternal sensitivity, leading to reactions that punish a child and negatively affect their relationship for the long term.
"Our study shows that parenting stress may very well weaken mother-child communication early in the process of social interaction This inability to appreciate the child's viewpoint may reduce the quality of parental engagement and undermine the mother-child relationship in the long run."

Gianluca Esposito PhD, Assistant Professor, School of Social Sciences; Director, Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab (SAN-Lab), NTU Singapore, and senior author.

The study, done in collaboration with researchers from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHHD) of the United States, and the University of Trento and University of Padova, Italy, are published in Nature Scientific Reports, August 2019.

How the Study Was Done

Researchers used functional Near-infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) caps as a non-invasive way to measure brain activation based on blood concentration levels in the brain. They combined the use of the caps with a recently developed method called tandem hyperscanning that simultaneously records the brain activity of two people. Before starting the experiment, mothers answered a questionnaire aimed to measure parenting stress. The mother-child pairs then wore the fNIRS caps with the child sitting on the mother's lap while both watched animation clips from Brave, Peppa Pig and The Incredibles together.

The NTU research team compared the mother's and child's brain activity to calculate brain-to-brain synchrony and found that for those parents reporting higher levels of parenting stress, the degree of mother-child synchrony in part of the prefrontal cortex was diminished, compared to those parents reporting lower stress who had better synchrony.
"Our study brings us a step closer to uncovering how parental stress weakens the mother-child relationship on a day-to-day basis. We didn't expect to find a clear relationship between a mother's parental stress and brain synchrony with her child ó in something as simple as watching animated films together. It suggests a mother's mental wellbeing is important for optimal mother-child engagement at the cognitive level."

Atiqah Azhari PhD candidate, SAN-Lab, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and first author.

The team now intends to study the effects of parenting stress on father-child brain synchrony.

Abstract
Synchrony refers to the coordinated interplay of behavioural and physiological signals that reflect the bi-directional attunement of one partner to the otherís psychophysiological, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral state. In mother-child relationships, a synchronous pattern of interaction indicates parental sensitivity. Parenting stress has been shown to undermine mother-child behavioural synchrony. However, it has yet to be discerned whether parenting stress affects brain-to-brain synchrony during everyday joint activities. Here, we show that greater parenting stress is associated with less brain-to-brain synchrony in the medial left cluster of the prefrontal cortex when mother and child engage in a typical dyadic task of watching animation videos together. This brain region overlaps with the inferior frontal gyrus, the frontal eye field, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which are implicated in inference of mental states and social cognition. Our result demonstrates the adverse effect of parenting stress on mother-child attunement that is evident at a brain-to-brain level. Mother-child brain-to-brain asynchrony may underlie the robust association between parenting stress and poor dyadic co-regulation. We anticipate our study to form the foundation for future investigations into mechanisms by which parenting stress impairs the mother-child relationship.

Authors
A. Azhari, W. Q. Leck, G. Gabrieli, A. Bizzego, P. Rigo, P. Setoh, M. H. Bornstein and G. Esposito.

Acknowledgements
This work was supported by the NAP Start-up Grant M4081597 (G.E.) from Nanyang Technological University Singapore as well as the Ministry of Education Tier-1 Grant RG55/18 (NS) 2018-T1-001-172 (G.E.), the Intramural Research Program of the NIH/NICHD, USA (M.H.B.), and an International Research Fellowship at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), London, UK (M.H.B.), funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 695300-HKADeC-ERC-2015-AdG) (M.H.B.). The founder agencies had no role in the conceptualization, design, data collection, analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.


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Sep 16 2019   Fetal Timeline   Maternal Timeline   News  




Illustration depicting the set-up of experimental
sessions. Illustration by Nur Hasyimah Bte Johari.
CREDIT Kyoto University/Kaori Watanabe


Phospholid by Wikipedia