Mothers' neural responses to infant faces are associated with activation of the maternal care system and observed intrusiveness with their own child.Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci. 2018 08; 18(4):609-621.CA
Certain infant facial characteristics, referred to as baby schema, are thought to automatically trigger parenting behavior and affective orientation toward infants. Electroencephalography (EEG) is well suited to assessing the intuitive nature and temporal dynamics of parenting responses, due to its millisecond temporal resolution. Little is known, however, about the relations between neural processing of infant cues and actual parenting behavior in a naturalistic setting. In the present study we examined the event-related potentials (ERPs) of mothers (N = 33) watching infant faces of varying attractiveness, in relation to activation of the maternal care system and the mothers' observed parenting behavior (sensitivity, nonintrusiveness) with their own child (2-6 years old). The results revealed that, irrespective of the cuteness of the infant face, mothers' neural processing of infant faces involved both early P1 and P2 components (related to orienting/detecting processes) and late positive potentials (LPPs; related to more controlled cognitive evaluation/attentional engagement). Increased early detection and processing of infant faces (reflected by P1 and P2 activity) was related to increased activation of the parental care system. In later stages of face processing, increased attentional engagement with infant faces (as reflected by LPP activity) was associated with more intrusiveness of a mother with her own child during interaction. These findings suggest that individual variations in responses to infant stimuli are associated with individual differences in parental care system activation and parenting quality. Furthermore, the parental care system might be activated relatively automatically, but actual parenting and caregiving behavior requires more conscious control.