Changing mothers' perception of infant emotion: a pilot study

Rebecca Carnegie, C. Shepherd, R. M. Pearson, K. S. Button, M. R. Munafò, J. Evans, I. S. Penton-Voak

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Cognitive bias modification (CBM) techniques, which experimentally retrain abnormal processing of affective stimuli, are becoming established for various psychiatric disorders. Such techniques have not yet been applied to maternal processing of infant emotion, which is affected by various psychiatric disorders. In a pilot study, mothers of children under 3 years old (n = 32) were recruited and randomly allocated to one of three training exercises, aiming either to increase or decrease their threshold of perceiving distress in a morphed continuum of 15 infant facial images. Differences between pre- and post-training threshold were analysed between and within subjects. Compared to baseline thresholds, the threshold for perceiving infant distress decreased in the lowered threshold group (mean difference -1.7 frames, 95 % confidence intervals (CI) -3.1 to -0.3, p = 0.02), increased in the raised threshold group (1.3 frames, 95 % CI 0.6 to 2.1, p < 0.01) and was unchanged in the control group (0.1 frames, 95 % CI -0.8 to 1.1, p = 0.80). Between-group differences were similarly robust in regression models and were not attenuated by potential confounders. The findings suggest that it is possible to change the threshold at which mothers perceive ambiguous infant faces as distressed, either to increase or decrease sensitivity to distress. This small study was intended to provide proof of concept (i.e. that it is possible to alter a mother's perception of infant distress). Questions remain as to whether the effects persist beyond the immediate experimental session, have an impact on maternal behaviour and could be used in clinical samples to improve maternal sensitivity and child outcomes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)167-172
JournalArchives of Women's Mental Health
Issue number1
Early online date11 Aug 2015
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2016


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