Infants' neural responses to emotional faces are related to maternal anxiety

J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2022 Feb;63(2):152-164. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.13429. Epub 2021 May 16.


Background: Postnatal maternal anxiety is common (estimates as high as 40% prevalence) and is associated with altered mother-infant interactions (e.g., reduced maternal emotional expression and engagement). Neural circuitry supporting infants' face and emotion processing develops in their first year. Thus, early exposure to maternal anxiety may impact infants' developing understanding of emotional displays. We examine whether maternal anxiety is associated with individual differences in typically developing infants' neural responses to emotional faces.

Methods: One hundred and forty two mother-infant dyads were assessed when infants were 5, 7, or 12 months old. Infants' electroencephalographic (EEG) data were recorded while passively viewing female happy, fearful, and angry faces. Three event-related potential (ERP) components, each linked to face and emotion processing, were evaluated: NC, N290, and P400. Infant ERP amplitude was related to concurrent maternal-report anxiety assessed with the Spielberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (Trait form).

Results: Greater maternal anxiety predicted more negative NC amplitude for happy and fearful faces in left and mid-central scalp regions, beyond covarying influences of maternal depression symptoms, infant negative emotionality, and infant age.

Conclusions: Postnatal maternal anxiety is related to infants' neural processing of emotional expressions. Infants of mothers endorsing high trait anxiety may need additional attentional resources to process happy and fearful faces (expressions less likely experienced in mother-infant interactions). Future research should investigate mechanisms underlying this association, given possibilities include experiential, genetic, and prenatal factors.

Keywords: EEG/ERP; Maternal anxiety; N290; NC; P400; emotions; faces; infants.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anxiety / psychology
  • Attention / physiology
  • Emotions* / physiology
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology
  • Facial Expression*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant