The sadness of post natal depression can pass to babies. Cambridge Science Festival 2016 investigates

Mums and babies are finely tuned to each other

Mums and babies are finely tuned to each other - Credit: Archant

Mums and babies are more finely tuned to each other than people realise, according to workshops coming to the Cambridge Science Festival.

The news is good if a mother can spend happy time with her newborn but if suffering post natal depression then the sadness can leave its mark, according to scientists.

Dr Victoria Leong, from the centre for neuroscience in education at the University of Cambridge, says mothers and infants share a close emotional bond that shapes some aspects of early brain development.

Disturbances to this early bond can produce long-lasting effects, she said.

“Mothers and infants and indeed some other types of close human pairs appear to share a privileged bond.

“This is an implicit form of communication or empathy that is most clearly evidenced through ‘behavioural synchrony’ – a mirroring of postures, gestures and even mood between mother and infant.

“Usually, this connection has an adaptive role – it keeps the mother physically and emotionally close to her baby and thereby in-tune with and responsive to their needs.

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“However, this connection can sometimes have unhappy consequences for the infant. For example, if a mother suffers from post-natal depression, she will tend to speak with a flattened tone that conveys sadness, and she will interact less with her baby.

“As a consequence, her infant will intuitively also start to vocalise less and express sadder emotional tone.

“We know from brain research that this goes beyond mimicry – these infants’ brain patterns also show a fundamental shift from positive to negative valence just like their depressed mothers.

“If these infants are followed-up, their neural changes can sometimes persist and be associated with higher risk for emotional disturbances in later life.”

Ongoing research discussed at the 2016 Cambridge Science Festival (March 7-20) includes baby-mum brain interaction, hands-on experience and brain imaging technology.

Dr Leong said: “Our work is just beginning, and we have yet to understand exactly how brain-to-brain synchrony is established and maintained, and what role it has in infants’ cognitive and emotional processing.”

Further information can be found at:

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