Do anxious mums equal anxious babies?

According to researchers at Penn State University, babies with nervous mothers spend more time focussing on threats in their environment than their counterparts.

Using state-of-the-art eye tracking technology, the scientists measured how long babies spent looking at happy, neutral and angry faces. After crunching the numbers, it transpired that babies with more anxious mothers spent longer looking at the angry faces than their peers with calmer mothers.

Previous research has found that focussing on threat in the environment – such as an angry face – could potentially increase anxiety levels. “Paying too much attention to threat, even as infants, could possibly set up this cycle,” says Koraly Pérez-Edgar, a professor of psychology at Penn State. “Additionally, we think that risk factors in biology and potentially mum’s anxiety could also make that more likely.”

To examine this relationship, the team recruited ninety-eight babies between the ages of four and twenty-four months. Each baby was placed in front of a screen, equipped with an infrared iris tracker. As the babies focussed on the screen, faces appeared one at a time. Once they had focussed on the face, a second face popped up in their peripheral vision.

According to Pérez-Edgar, the reflex to automatically turn and look if something pops up in your peripheral vision is present by the time you’re a few months old. This introduced a conflict for the babies, as they were focussed on the initial face but had the desire to turn and look at the new image.

Using the vision-tracking technique, it was found that the more anxious the mother was (according to a questionnaire), the longer it took for the baby to disengage from the image of the angry face. This implies that the babies with more nervous mothers have a harder time ignoring potential threats in their environment.

Interestingly, it was also found that the age of the baby did not seem to matter. If the babies were learning the anxious traits from their mother, it would be expected that the older babies would have a harder time turning away from the angry face than the younger babies. However, this was not the case. Pérez-Edgar seems to think that this indicates more of a genetic element, though more research is needed.

“Once we learn more about the pathways to anxiety, we can better predict who’s at risk and hopefully prevent them from needing treatment later on,” says Pérez-Edgar. “Let’s find out which kids are at the highest risk and intervene.”

Tabitha Watson

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