[By: Sayaka Kidby]
It’s been almost a year since many countries went into lockdown in response to the fast spread of coronavirus. I hope you all are keeping well and safe. Even if you or your loved ones haven’t contracted the virus, many of us are affected in various ways by this pandemic. According to a report by University College London, more than two thirds of UK adults reported various level of worries and anxieties during the pandemic[i]. Moreover, it is reported that 70% of parents felt the changes caused by the pandemic were affecting their unborn baby or young child (e.g., increased crying and/or tantrums, being clingier)[ii].
Perhaps your little one might be sensing how you are feeling. Various studies have found that parent’s emotional state can influence babies’ emotional state[iii]. In one particular study, a group of researchers asked mothers to go through either a relaxing task, or a stressful task. They examined how their baby responded to the mother’s emotional state after the task by comparing parent’s and baby’s heart rates as an indicator of stress. The results showed that babies whose mother did a relaxing task showed more relaxed state, while babies whose mother did a stressful task showed more stressed heart rate pattern[iv].
This suggests that babies mirror their parent’s emotional state. This phenomenon is called emotional contagion (or affect contagion as psychologists call it).
You’ve probably heard about the impact of parent’s negative emotion on their baby, as this study showed. But the impact of parent’s positive emotion should not be overlooked, as this study also showed. It is not just negative emotions that traverse – positive emotion can be passed through too.
Your positive emotion also may help your brain and your baby’s brain get connected, not just emotional states. Another group of researchers looked at connection between baby’s and their mother’s brains, by measuring parent’s and their baby’s brain activities at the same time while they were playing together. They found that parent’s and baby’s brains were more connected (i.e., showing similar activity patterns) when parents showed more positive emotion compared to when they showed negative emotion[v]. What this brain-to-brain connectivity means in terms of infant development and wellbeing is yet to be fully understood, but studies with adults and older children found that this synchronous brain activity might be the supporting mechanism of mutual understanding and successful communication[vi].
There is still some uncertainty around how our life will turn out to be, but it is important to look after yourself, because your mood affects your baby’s mood, and your low mood does not help you and your little one get connected in many ways. Remember to take some time for yourself and do something you enjoy. I like a morning stretch, walk with my dog and having a hot bath. When I cannot sleep well during the night, I let myself have some short nap during the day – a perk of working from home!
A year has passed (before we know it!) but that does not mean we should have learned by now to cope perfectly with this abnormality. Remember it is okay to be not okay, and have some downtime. A little self-care goes a long way – it is actually taking care of your little one too.
Lastly but not least, it is important to emphasise that I am not a medical doctor or a qualified clinical psychologist in the UK, and hence by no means qualified to give you any medical or clinical advice. If you have any concerns about your mental or physical health, do not hesitate to contact your GP, or any support available around you. For example, in the UK, there are several organisations offering support via phone, such as YoungMinds (https://youngminds.org.uk/find-help/for-parents/parents-helpline/). Do reach out for help. It is okay to be not okay, especially now that everything can feel uncertain, out of control and overwhelming.
[iii] Feldman, R. (2007). Parent–infant synchrony and the construction of shared timing; physiological precursors, developmental outcomes, and risk conditions. Journal of Child psychology and Psychiatry, 48(3‐4), 329-354.
[iv] Waters, S. F., West, T. V., Karnilowicz, H. R., & Mendes, W. B. (2017). Affect contagion between mothers and infants: Examining valence and touch. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 146(7), 1043.
[v] Santamaria, L., Noreika, V., Georgieva, S., Clackson, K., Wass, S., & Leong, V. (2020). Emotional valence modulates the topology of the parent-infant inter-brain network. NeuroImage, 207, 116341.
[vi] Stephens, G. J., Silbert, L. J., & Hasson, U. (2010). Speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(32), 14425-14430.
I would like to thank Aude Carteron for her constructive comments while writing this post