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Early interaction

Watch this video. Professor Jane Barlow describes some of the key features of early interaction between the parent and child.
In this block, we will examine the way in which aspects of the parent’s mind influence the infant’s developing mind as a result of the way in which this shapes the interaction with their baby and the way in which this interaction influences whether the baby is then securely attached. We’re going to focus first on aspects of the parents’ emotional mind and in particular what the research tells us about parents who are experiencing emotions such as anxiety or depression. Earlier in this course, we examined the way in which serve and return interactions influence the way in which the baby’s brain is wired during the postnatal period.
However, we now know that it is the quality of these serve and return interactions that are most important. Let’s look at this in more detail. Parental contingent responsiveness refers to behaviour on the part of the parent that is contingent with or attuned to the infant’s needs. Such attuned responsiveness can consist of a number of different components of parental behaviour, including, for example, facial expressions such as smiling when the infant smiles or looking sad when the infant looks sad or the raising of eyebrows and opening of mouth to show surprise, infant-directed speech, which has a higher pitch, exaggerated contours, and greater rhythmicity compared with adult-directed speech, and contingent touch that involves gentle stroking of the infant’s skin.
Vitality affects refer to the patterns or changes in the dynamics and intensity of these actions and emotional rhythms by the parent that the infant then begins to map and categorise. During the first three months of life, infants need interactions that is highly contingent in terms of being matched closely to how they are. However, after three months of age, infants begin to enjoy interactions with caregivers that are imperfectly matched. The interactions at this point become characterised by a pattern in which there are moments of synchrony followed by rupture of the synchrony followed by repair. This process of synchrony, rupture and repair is described very nicely in the following quotation.
Attuned mutual coordination between mother and infant occurs when the infant’s squeal of delight is matched by the mothers excited clapping and sparkling eyes. The baby then becomes over-stimulated, arches its back, and looks away from the mother. A rupture has occurred and there is a mis-coordination. The mother, still excited, is leaning forward while the baby, now serious, pulls away. However, the mother then picks up the cue and begins the repair. She stops laughing and with a little sigh, quietens down. The baby comes back and makes eye contact again. Mother and baby gently smile. They are back in sync again in attunement with one another.
This process of synchrony, rupture, and repair needs the parent to be able to pick up the infant’s emotional and behavioural cues. And parents who are experiencing anxiety and depression can sometimes find this difficult to do. The research of Beatrice Beebe in the United States has examined the way in which such anxiety and depression can reduce the capacity of the parent for what she terms mid-range contingency. Professor Beatrice Beebe developed this concept based on many years of research analysing the interactions of parents and their babies.
What she has found is that parents who are able to flexibly regulate their own emotional state, in addition to that of their babies, have interaction that is characterised by repeated patterns of synchrony, rupture, and repair. And that these babies are as a result securely attached. However, she also found that some parents are preoccupied with regulating themselves, such as where the parent is experiencing postnatal depression. These parents may feel low and withdrawn and as a result their interaction can be characterised by low engagement and low tracking of the infant, who is as a result insecurely attached. At the other end of the continuum are parents who are preoccupied or anxious about the interaction itself.
These parents engage in high tracking in which they may be intrusive and controlling and unable to allow the infant to initiate or break from the interaction. This pattern of interaction is also associated with the infant being insecurely attached. These findings have been confirmed by other leading researchers in the field. Watch the video of my interview with Professor Lynne Murray who’s conducted research which compares the interactional patterns of depressed mothers with their babies at two months of age with the interaction of women not experiencing such depression. The results of her research showed that mothers who are experiencing depression were less sensitively attuned to their infants and were less affirming and more negating of infant experience.
Other the studies have also shown that compared with parents not experiencing depression, depressed women showed signs of less effective sharing, a lower rate of overall interactive behaviour, less concentration, and more negative responses. If you would like to learn more about this, we’ve provided an article which describes the impact of the interactional context of the infant and identifies two key patterns of interaction that are particularly important, hostile or intrusive and disengaged or withdrawn.

In Week 1 we identified the importance of ‘serve and return’ interactions in terms of the way in which these are characterised by moments of affect (Step 4.18: Glossary) synchrony, rupture and then repair, and we examined the impact of this on the baby’s developing brain, and their attachment.

In this video we examine some of the research by Dr Beatrice Beebe, who has identified the importance of what she termed ‘midrange contingency’, which refers to interaction that is neither too withdrawn, nor too vigilant and intrusive.

We describe some of Beebe’s research, in which she distinguishes between ‘self contingency’, which refers to the way in which the parent adjusts their behaviour in terms of their prior behaviour, and ‘interactive contingency’, which refers to the way in which the behaviours of each member of the dyad influence one another.

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Babies in Mind: Why the Parent's Mind Matters

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