Published:  2013-11-01

Maternal Overreactive Sympathetic Nervous System Responses to Repeated Infant Crying Predicts Risk for Impulsive Harsh Discipline of Infants

Authors:  Katharina J. Joosen, Judi Mesman, Marian J. Bakermans-Kranenburg, Marinus H. van IJzendoorn


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Physiological reactivity to repeated infant crying was examined as a predictor of risk for harsh discipline use with 12-month-olds in a longitudinal study with 48 low-income mother?infant dyads. Physiological reactivity was measured while mothers listened to three blocks of infant cry sounds in a standard cry paradigm when their infants were 3 months old. Signs of harsh discipline use were observed during two tasks during a home visit when the infants were 12 months old. Mothers showing signs of harsh discipline (n = 10) with their 12-month-olds were compared to mothers who did not (n = 38) on their sympathetic (skin conductance levels [SCL]) and parasympathetic (respiratory sinus arrhythmia) reactivity to the cry sounds. Results showed a significant interaction effect for sympathetic reactivity only. Mean SCL of harsh-risk mothers showed a significant different response pattern from baseline to crying and onward into the recovery, suggesting that mean SCL of mothers who showed signs of harsh discipline continued to rise across the repeated bouts of cry sounds while, after an initial increase, mean SCL level of the other mothers showed a steady decline. We suggest that harsh parenting is reflected in physiological overreactivity to negative infant signals and discuss our findings from a polyvagal perspective.