Envision this: you are an infant born only moments ago. The onslaught of new sensations is overwhelming. You now feel the weight of your once weightless body. Where your eyes once saw muted shades they now see bright, harsh lights. When once you didn’t perceive the pangs of hunger you can now sense it with alarming surprise. The warmth, comfort, and safety you once bathed in are gone.
Still, you discover yet another challenge, your new body functions in an unorganized manner. All of your body systems such as your cardiovascular, digestive, and immune are chaotic. You need help to regulate them. That help comes every time you’re in close contact with your caregiver. The familiar warmth, heart beat, and overall essence offers an interaction synchrony that can be life-saving.
Parent-Child Synchrony Psychology Definition
In the early 1980s when Colombian neurologists Edgar Rey and Hector Martinez ran out of incubators for premature infants, they drew inspiration from kangaroos and began placing infants on their mother’s bellies. They found that the mortality rate of these premature babies fell from 70% to 30%.
Since then the amazing effects of parent-child interaction synchrony, have been widely studied. Parent-child interaction synchrony is defined as what occurs on a physiological, social, and emotional level when there is close and regular physical interaction between caregiver and child.
- skin to skin contact
- Kangaroo Care (both with or without clothing)
- babywearing (carrying infant in a carrier or sling)
- frequent or on-demand feedings
- sleeping nearby one another or co-sleeping
- infant touch/massage
all promote parent-child synchrony. Better sleep, successful breastfeeding, and optimal functioning of all of baby’s body systems have been shown to result from parent-child interaction synchrony.
Synchrony Infant Development Studies
A 2020 study on full-term infants concluded that the baby’s left frontal area of the brain increased in activity, (this part of the brain is associated with higher-order cognitive and emotional regulatory skills). The same study showed that both mom and baby had a higher amount of oxytocin and less of the stress hormone cortisol. (source)
Oxytocin is a powerful hormone. For pregnant women it’s responsible for uterine contractions; in fact, Pitocin is the synthetic version used to induce labor. It also has a vital role in breastfeeding and postpartum recovery. However, some of its other many functions involve enhancing emotional bonding, lowering stress responses, and reducing depression; all of which were demonstrated in mother and baby as a result of interaction synchrony.
The benefits of synchrony psychology for parents and infants are so overwhelming that most health organizations worldwide recommend that babies receive this special close contact.
More recently, in April of 2021, Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) published a study that looked at the long term effects of Kangaroo Care. For two decades, they followed preterm and full-term babies; some had received Kangaroo Care (skin to skin contact), others didn’t. (source) The children were assessed at ages 4 months, 3 years, 12 years, and 20 years.
The study showed that this parent-child synchrony predicted the child’s later sensitivity to emotion-specific empathy. One method of assessing the intensity of empathy was displayed via brain mapping, which showed the regions of the brain that were activated when the children were asked to “put themselves in the shoes” of the protagonist.
Researchers concluded that early experience of parent-child synchrony psychology plays an important role in children’s social–emotional development. It’s been shown to predict the child’s later ability to interact with peers, regulate emotions, manage stress, and show empathic understanding.
According to the authors, bodily contact may provide a bridge from prenatal life, when the mother’s body is focused on the growth needs of the unborn baby, to postnatal social life, when moments of synchrony externally regulate the baby’s heart rhythms, hormonal response, and brain activity. As evidence shows, synchrony psychology provides the child with a long-term advantage in adjustment to social life.
Synchrony Psychology and the First Year
Research findings on parent-child interaction synchrony are consistent with another discipline and area of study. Anthropologists who study human development comparatively with other mammals say that humans are born about one year “too early”. In contrast to many mammals, whose birth brain size is about 80% of adult size, the human infant’s brain is about 25% of an adult’s. Human children only reach about 60% of adult brain size by the time they reach 1 year old. During that one year of postpartum development caretakers must provide the correct “habitat” or place designed to help the infant cope with its immaturity.
An optimal habitat, according to anthropological evidence, can be provided through what’s termed as “carry care”. Carry care, which includes Kangaroo Care, babywearing, breastfeeding for at least two years, and sleeping near parent, provides continued opportunities for the close contact that promotes parent-child interaction synchrony.
Baby’s Stress Response to Being Away from a Parent
Researchers found that when the attachment process of “carry care” is disturbed, meaning caregiver and baby become separated for a time, the baby begins what’s termed “protest-despair behavior”.
The protest response involves withdrawal, distress cries, and other behaviors that indicate baby is in the wrong “habitat”. If separation continues stress hormones rise, body temperature drops, heart rate slows and/or becomes irregular, physical growth slows, immune system is suppressed, and healthy sleep patterns are disturbed. Once the baby is reunited with its “correct habitat” (brought together with mother/caregiver), body systems are restored and stress hormones reduce.
Anthropologists point out that it’s primarily in Western society where parents have evolved away from “carry care” to one of “cache” or “nest care” where the baby is often placed apart from the caregiver. Western babies lay on play mats and sit in chairs or swings. They often sleep in their own rooms, away from the caregiver.
The children’s product industry capitalizes on these Western trends by manufacturing eye-catching items that ultimately create the illusion, whether parents are aware of it or not, that separateness is a desirable goal. One new baby gear item is a device that “shushes” your baby with “a real human voice.”
Synchrony Infant Development and Bonding
Yet parent-child interaction synchrony offers even more benefits. Parents who practice synchrony psychology say they experience a deep bonding and attachment to their child. They say things like they feel strongly “connected to” and that there is a profound “knowing of” their child. This knowing promotes responsiveness to their child as nothing else can. Along with reading baby’s body cues, caregivers can anticipate what a child needs without the negative emotions that precede crying.
This intuitive bond allows them to sense when their child has had too much stimulation, or conversely, too little. They are better able to judge what activities or situations are best for their child. Parents who know their child deeply can wisely discern the best discipline strategies since there is no one effective method for all children.
Being keenly aware of both their strengths and weaknesses, they may also better steer their child toward areas in which they would naturally succeed.
But perhaps most importantly, there comes a confidence in knowing you are nurturing your child in a way that is magnificently specific for their mind, body, and soul. So specific that no parenting book or advice from well-meaning friends can ever reign superior to your own powerful instincts made possible through a deep connection with your child.
The Power of Touch
When doctors Rey and Martinez began placing premature babies on their mother’s chests in an act of desperation due to lack of incubators, I bet they weren’t expecting all the amazing discoveries that sprang from this simple act. The power of touch is measurable. The studies conducted over the past four decades have led to new evidence-based maternity practices such as routine skin-to-skin contact following birth.
And I suspect there may be more to come. Parent-child interaction synchrony is still revealing its bio-psychosocial benefits through continued research for the health and wellness of both parent and child. However, you don’t have to be researcher to observe how giving and receiving loving touch possesses the power to transform health and positively influence parenting.