Chair: Emma Murrugara, Department of Human Development, Cornell University

Co-Chair & Discussant:Michael Goldstein, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Cornell University

Symposium Abstract

Parents among altricial species dedicate considerable resources to caring for and rearing their offspring. It is well known that parental behavior has a large impact in shaping infant development. What often gets overlooked, however, is how infants also shape their parent’s development. In this symposium, we explore how the parent-infant system is rich in interactions that bidirectionally shape the development of behavior, cognition, and state-regulation across the dyad. In the first presentation, Tian Linger Xu will present longitudinal data showing how parents’ use of hand-eye coordination changes over the course of infant development, facilitating joint attention and social interaction. Next, Zhoujun Ying (in Gedeon Deak’s lab) will examine how an infant’s ability to interact with objects in increasingly complex and multimodal ways shapes the way parents interact with objects around their children. Then, Emma Murrugarra will discuss work investigating how infant locomotor maturity shapes parental stress and perception of threat in the environment. Finally, Sam Wass will explore how stress within the caregiver-infant dyad impacts vocal response patterns and mutual state-regulation. Michael Goldstein will be our symposium discussant.  He will facilitate conversation on why the co-development of parents and their offspring is an essential consideration for understanding the mechanisms behind the development of adaptive skills, and how this idea can be extended to altricial species more broadly. Taken together, these talks demonstrate the power of conceptualizing the parents and infants as a co-developing and co-evolved system.  Parents and infants continually modify one another’s perceptual and cognitive systems as they develop.  The speakers’ research takes a dyadic focus to better understand the development of perception, attention, communication, and learning in both infants and parents. Our focus on parent-infant systems provides a rich and exciting foundation for future research.

List of abstracts and presenters: 


Tian Linger Xu, Ph.D., Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Indiana University 

Social interactions between mature partners and infants are the context for many domains of human development. Mature partners provide information, set tasks to solve, and scaffold and entrain infant internal states in ways that promote language, emotional, self-regulatory and sensory-motor development. Recent findings indicate that the quality of these social interactions depend on the temporal coordination of gaze and hand actions, as well as other behaviors. Here we show that the coordination of the two-person social interaction depends on and impacts the within-person hand-eye coordination of each participant. In a longitudinal study of infants at 9- and 12-months of age, we collected fine-grained temporal measures of gaze and hand actions from both partners using wearable sensors and analyzed the temporal predictive influences among these measures. The parents show less hand-eye coordination when interacting with their 9-month-old infants compared to when their infants are 12 months old, implicating that the parents’ own behaviors within the interactions are affected by the sensory-motor coordination of their infants. The developmental increase in intra- and inter-personal sensory-motor coordination leads to more joint attention, smoother transitions to shared attention, and shorter lags in each partner’s following each other’s interest during play.


Zhuojun Ying, Department of Cognitive Science, University of California San Diego

Mother-infant triadic interactions, wherein the infant coordinates attention between a caregiver and objects of joint focus, are a much-studied context of human social learning. However, it is unclear how the emergence of triadic interactions late in the first year relates to infants’ motor and cognitive maturation, and to social input from caregivers. De Barbaro et al. (2016) hypothesized that sensorimotor decoupling, whereby infants learn to distribute their visual and manual-haptic modalities simultaneously to different objects and people, facilitates triadic interaction. However, caregivers’ social actions might facilitate decoupling and thus indirectly promote triadic play. Moreover, infants’ increasing decoupling ability might compel caregivers to modify their actions when interacting with infants, contributing to a bidirectional trajectory towards increasing triadic interactions. In a longitudinal study of 48 infants we examined how infants’ autonomous motor activity and maternal scaffolding jointly predict age-related increases in infants’ gaze-hand and hand-hand (i.e., bimanual) decoupling during toy play. We examine the influence of caregiver behaviors on decoupling from 4 to 9 months of age by assessing the degree to which infant decoupling rates are contingent upon maternal manual activities. We consider how mothers adapt their scaffolding to infants’ developing sensorimotor skills by classifying changes in mothers’ object manipulation actions (e.g. offering toys) as contingent on infant coupled or decoupled exploratory actions. Our results show that infants increasingly decoupled their sensorimotor modalities in response to maternal manual activities from 4 to 9 months. Furthermore, in Gaze-Hand decoupled events (i.e., when an infant’s gaze and hands are directed to different objects), infants tend to shift their gaze towards objects that their mothers pick up, but shift their hands to objects that their mothers drop. Ongoing analyses are examining how infants’ decoupling predicts age-related changes in mothers’ object-related actions.


Emma Murrugara, Department of Human Development, Cornell University

Becoming a parent can lead to cognitive changes such as greater sensitivity to cries, more accurate detection of social alarm, and overestimation of stranger formidability. However, parental perception is not in a static state over the course of infant development. As an infants’ locomotor skills mature with the onset of crawling and walking, they can engage with new features of the environment that may be dangerous and outside the parents’ reach. These changes in their infant’s locomotor skills may shape the parent’s abilities to perceive threat in the environment. To test this, we developed a paradigm in which a virtual infant crawls near a busy roadside. The virtual infant was presented in three states: walking, crawling, and stationary. Parents were given the task of detecting oncoming cars as fast as possible, as well as keeping their virtual infant safe by pressing a button to pick them up as needed. Parents were equipped with sensors to measure galvanic skin conductance, a measure of stress-based arousal. We predicted that parents would show greater stress and faster threat detection in response to a virtual infant if their own infant has a matching locomotor style. We found the presence of the virtual infant, and whether it matches the parent’s real infant, does have an impact on how parents perceive danger in the world. For example, parents of crawlers were faster to detect cars in the presence of a crawling virtual infant, but parents of walkers were slower to detect cars when the virtual infant did not match their own infant’s locomotor stage. Thus, parental vigilance to threats in the environment is shaped by experience with their infant’s locomotor development.


Sam Wass, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, University of East London

We currently understand little about how early vocal communication is influenced by changes in autonomic arousal within an infant-caregiver dyad. To examine this, we used wearable microphones and autonomic sensors to collect multimodal naturalistic datasets from 12-month-olds and their caregivers. We observed that, across the day, clusters of vocalisations occur during elevated infant and caregiver arousal. This relationship is stronger in infants than caregivers: caregivers show greater functional flexibility, and their vocal production is more influenced by the infant’s arousal than their own. Different types of vocalisation elicit different patterns of change across the dyad. Cries occur following reduced infant arousal stability and lead to increased child-caregiver arousal coupling, and decreased infant arousal. Speech-like vocalisations also occur at elevated arousal, but lead to longer-lasting increases in arousal, and elicit more parental verbal responses. We also examine how vocal behaviour can develop atypically in infants raised in noisy and chaotic households. Overall, our results suggest that: vocalisations are not yet functionally flexible in 12-month-old infants; that caregivers’ differential responses to specific types of vocalisations is an important factor driving speech development; and that this selection mechanism which drives vocal development is anchored in our stress physiology.

Symposium Discussant 

Michael Goldstein, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Cornell University