By Nancy Josephson Liff
Original post here

babies-sense-parents-conflict-315x315Babies sense a lot of things, including the sights and smells of the world around them.

Now, scientists say, infants can also sense the angry tones of parental conflict — even if they’re napping.

In a new study from researchers at University of Oregon, investigators exposed sleeping infants, ranging in age from six months to one year, to the sound of a male voice speaking nonsense words in tones investigators described as “very angry,” “mildly angry,” “neutral,” and “happy.”

Parents in the experiment were asked to complete a questionnaire about conflict levels in their home environment.

While babies in the experiment caught some shut-eye in the university laboratory, researchers used a high-tech neuroimaging device to evaluate their tiny subjects’ responses to hearing angry voices.

Scientists have known for years that severe stressors, such as maltreatment and institutionalization, can have a “significant, negative impact on child development.”

Until now, however, researchers have had little information on the impact of moderate stressors.

As UO doctoral student Alice Graham put it, “We were interested in whether a common source of early stress in children’s lives — conflict between parents — is associated with how infants’ brains function.”

While more research is needed, it appears that moderate stressors, such as family conflict, may influence how babies process stress and emotion.

In the UO experiment, babies from homes where parents reported significant conflict showed greater “reactivity” to the “very angry” tone of voice in the experiment — in areas of the brain associated with stress and emotional regulation, said the online news source Science Daily.

Sleeping babies knew an angry voice when they heard one.

In a university release, Graham noted, “Even during sleep infants showed distinct patterns of brain activity depending on the emotional tone of the voice we presented.” The study appears in the journal Psychological Science.

Scientists don’t yet know the long-term impact of parental skirmishes. But in the meantime, if babies sense their parent’s struggles, the warring factions should lower the volume when the little ones are sleeping.

Better yet, call a truce or revisit the dispute later. But don’t make adult issues the baby’s problem.


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