Image courtesy of the New York Times.
Pregnancy is widely understood to be a time of neurophysiological and psychological change for the mother in preparation for caregiving—but what about for the expectant father? A recent study led by Helena Rutherford at the Yale Child Study Center compared maternal and paternal responsiveness to infant affective facial cues, seeking possible correlations between neural and psychological changes in the transition to parenthood.
Sixty-eight expectant parents (thirty-eight mothers, thirty fathers) were recruited from the New Haven community to complete electroencephalogram (EEG) assessments while looking at photographs of distressed infant versus neutral infant faces. Using event-related potentials (ERPs) to measure a specific peak of neural response, P300, the researchers measured attention allocation to infant facial cues, which is thought to be important to future caregiving behavior. Even more interesting was their written language-based measure of psychological ‘mind-mindedness,’ in which participants were asked to prospectively think about what their baby would be like at six months of age.
“You’re looking for evidence that [the parents recognize] the baby is a psychological agent and has thoughts and feelings and ideas of their own,” Rutherford said.
P300 reactivity in the ERP neural measures was found to be heightened in expectant fathers, meaning fathers were more reactive to infant distress than expectant mothers. This increased paternal attention to distress was also correlated with greater levels of paternal mind-mindedness when thinking prospectively about their unborn child.
These novel findings suggest sex differences in reactivity to infant facial cues, with implications for prenatal mind-mindedness and future parent-child attachment styles. It could be that mothers are exposed to constant biological and sociocultural cues during pregnancy—making them less reliant on infant facial cues. Men, conversely, are more reliant and sensitive to the facial cue input.
“It raises more questions than it answers—more next steps, more next directions,” Rutherford said. She is excited to study whether these parental differences in reactivity and mind-mindedness persist longitudinally past infancy, as well as how factors such as socioeconomic background and stability of the relationship may contribute.
“It brings the research to life, spending time with the women—just hearing their stories, and hearing the narratives around their pregnancies. The paper was accepted shortly after my daughter was born, so it was really interesting to go through that whole process along with my own pregnancy,” Rutherford said.
Rutherford, H. J., Bunderson, M., Bartz, C., Haitsuka, H., Meins, E., Groh, A. M., & Milligan, K. (2021). Imagining the baby: Neural reactivity to infant distress and mind-mindedness in expectant parents. Biological Psychology,161, 108057. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2021.108057