Unpredictable Maternal Behavior during Infancy Predicts Toddler Emotional Development
Mentor:Elysia Davis, Associate Professor of Psychology, University of California Irvine
In humans, decades of research have established that maternal care behaviors during infancy are associated with a broad range of outcomes in children. Little, however, is known about the specific maternal behaviors and behavioral sequences that are critical determinants of human development. In contrast, animal models have provided a rich understanding of the mechanisms by which maternal care influences the developing brain. In rodent studies, fragmented and unpredictable maternal behavior exerts lasting consequences. Consideration of the consequences of fragmented and unpredictable maternal behavior in humans provides an opportunity to better understand the mechanisms by which maternal behavior shapes emotional development in the off-spring. Participants included 39 mother-child pairs assessed when the child was 12 and 24 months of age. To assess fragmented/ unpredictable maternal behavior at 12 months, a 10-minute semi-structured mother-child interaction protocol was implemented and maternal behaviors such as speech, toy manipulation, and touch were coded continuously. These codes were then analyzed using Theme software which identifies patterns of behaviors within the coded data. Pattern length was used to describe the predictability of maternal care giving behavior (longer patterns represented more predictable care). At 24 months, child negative temperament was measured by maternal report using the Early Childhood Behavior Questionnaire. Maternal behavior pattern length was found to be negatively correlated with child negative affectivity [r(37)= -0.34, p<0.05]. Mothers who provided more predictable (or less fragmented) care at 12 months had children who displayed less negative temperament (fear, frustration, shyness, etc.) at 24 months of age. This is one of the first studies to use this type of “micro” level coding to objectively analyze specific patterns of maternal behaviors, rather than using subjective coding of the overall quality of maternal care. These findings indicate that predictable maternal care is beneficial to the emotional development of the offspring.