Ira Hillman -

Feb 23, 2022

How Emotional Expression Overcomes Distractions

Every new parent hears the same two things: “It’s amazing and life-changing,” and “Get ready to be exhausted and stressed all the time.” According to the Pew Research Center, 74 percent of parents with kids under the age of 18 say they feel too busy to enjoy life at least sometimes. One in seven mothers experience maternal depression and anxiety—and that number is much higher for women from low-income communities or communities of color. New research from the RAPID-EC project, which is a national survey of caregivers with children under age 6 that has been conducted twice each month since April 2020, found that emotional distress has increased about 50 percent during the pandemic.

The emotional distress of parents, and the pressures that cause it, also affect the relationships parents have with their babies. The RAPID-EC study found that for parents having trouble paying for basic needs, emotional distress was even higher than average, which predicts increased behavioral problems in young children. According to a 2012 study from Robert Putnam and colleagues at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, the pressures of having to work multiple jobs and unpredictable shifts while also navigating caring responsibilities drastically reduces the time available for the connections that matter most.

Is it any wonder that so many leaders in the early childhood sector ask, “How can we help parents develop a healthy emotional relationship with their children at an early age?” Often this question seems to suggest the absence of connection between parent and baby, but babies in utero are already emotionally connected and co-regulating with their parent, and that remains true at the moment of birth.

Exciting research from the Nurture Science Program has shown that emotional connection is literally a heart-to-heart phenomenon. This means that two people (in this research, mothers and children) regulate each other’s bodies and emotions, and deeply influence each other’s emotional behavior. This happens at the autonomic nervous system level— the nervous system of the gut, heart, and lungs—and directly affects ability to connect emotionally with each other.

The autonomic nervous system becomes conditioned by the sensory cues of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste we experience in early childhood and beyond. When a baby has a sensory exchange with a parent, it can trigger a calming effect that leads to deeper emotional connection between the two.

However, this state of connection can be easily disrupted. Our lives are full of inevitable moments of disconnection: a newborn is taken away for a series of tests, parents go back to work, children eventually go to school. In response, it’s important to develop habits of reconnection and repair to overcome these everyday moments of disconnection.

"In response, it’s important to develop habits of reconnection and repair to overcome these everyday moments of disconnection."

The Orienting Reflex

Another ever-present barrier to connection that can be hard to escape are the infinite distractions that pull on our time and attention. Being distracted disrupts the natural interactions we use to get another person’s attention, from which to initiate connection. A 2018 study demonstrated that smartphones distract parents from feeling connected when spending time with their children. Emotional connection begins with an orienting reflex in our bodies. Upon hearing your name called, you turn towards the sound. Your directed gaze creates an opportunity for eye contact, mutual facial expressions, such as a smile of recognition, and the ensuing reciprocity of cues between two people: an embrace, a kiss, the touch of hands. Burdened by distractions from cell phones to deadlines, parents and babies sometimes struggle to bring attention to one another, which can lead to prolonged states of disconnection that have negative long-term effects. For families who live with chronic stress and trauma, such distractions are even greater. Babies and parents—especially those burdened by poverty, racism, and adverse childhood experiences—face even more severe distractions and emotional distress from the chronic challenges in their lives, including financial worries and concerns about personal and community safety.

Premature birth generates extreme stress and trauma for babies and their parents. And, it is more common than most people think—1 in 10 babies are born prematurely in the United States, and the rate is even higher among communities of color. To understand how to help families living with stress and trauma overcome the orienting barriers created by heightened stress, Einhorn Collaborative funded research studies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Columbia University, and eventually additional hospitals in Texas and New Jersey.

The research found that a parent’s emotional expression—from singing an emotional song to telling an emotional story—can trigger a baby’s orienting reflex, which also starts the process of reconnection. When mothers responded to prompts like, “Tell your baby the story of your pregnancy and birth,” or “Tell your baby the story of how you chose their name,” they noticed that if they expressed emotion in telling the story, their child’s attention turned to them, and they felt connected.

"When mothers responded to prompts like, “Tell your baby the story of your pregnancy and birth,” or “Tell your baby the story of how you chose their name,” they noticed that if they expressed emotion in telling the story, their child’s attention turned to them, and they felt connected."

That ease of reconnection resulted in improved health benefits for the babies, including better sleep and brain development. The mothers in the studies also benefitted from reduced maternal depression and anxiety four months after giving birth, as well as healthier cardiac function.

Supporting Families with Tools for Emotional Expression

Given these strong outcomes from multiple studies in the NICU, Einhorn Collaborative is funding a collaborative that will bring the tools of emotional expression to all families, including those facing the burdens of chronic financial hardship and structural racism. The collaborative, led by the Center for the Study of Social Policy with Reach Out and Read, will pilot a new Emotional Connection curriculum with clinicians in pediatric primary care, which uses Nurture Science Program research findings to promote emotional expression that can effectively trigger the orienting reflex between babies and their parents.

The real test is whether it’s possible to change the mindset of parent-facing professionals to embrace a focus on the relationships that set up babies for well-being, rather than just the physical health and development of the child. This transformation is part of a larger societal shift that requires a move away from an emphasis on individual well-being to an understanding and celebration of the interdependence that we all share with others through the power of relationships. Addressing the systems challenges that create barriers to emotional connection between parents and their children requires that policymakers and other leaders with influence understand and value the perspective of families, especially those facing greater adversity. Imagine if parent-child relationships were valued for the foundational role they play in child well-being. Through collaboration, we can also reframe individual struggles with challenges like poverty, racism, and trauma as collective concerns we must solve together.

Ira Hillman leads Einhorn Collaborative’s Bonding strategy. Learn more about our work in Bonding and more about Ira. Sign up to receive our monthly newsletter and be the first to read Ira’s blog posts.