Moms may be notorious worriers, but babies of anxious mothers may also spend more time focusing on threats in their environment, according to a team of researchers.
In a study, researchers used eye-tracking technology to measure how long babies spent looking at happy, neutral and angry faces. They found that the babies with anxious moms had a harder time looking away from an angry face — which they could view as a threat — than babies whose moms were not anxious.
Koraly Pérez-Edgar, professor of psychology at Penn State, said the findings — recently published in the journal Emotion — could help give clues about which children are at risk for developing anxiety later in life.
“Once we learn more about the pathways to anxiety, we can better predict who’s at risk and hopefully help prevent them from needing treatment later on,” Pérez-Edgar said. “Treatment is difficult for the child and parent, it’s expensive and it doesn’t always work. If we can prevent anxiety from developing, that’s a whole lot better. Let’s find out which kids are at the highest risk and intervene.”
Previous research has found that focusing too much on threat could potentially increase anxiety, and some forms of therapy focus on turning attention away from threat as a way to lower anxiety.
“Paying too much attention to threat, even as infants, could possibly set up this cycle. The more you fixate on threat, the more opportunity you have to see the world as a threatening place, which could help lead to more anxiety,” Pérez-Edgar said. “Additionally, we think that risk factors in biology and potentially mom’s anxiety could also make that more likely.”
To examine the relationship between a mother’s anxiety and her baby’s attention to threat, a research team led by Pérez-Edgar; Kristin Buss, professor of psychology at Penn State; and Vanessa Lobue, assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University, recruited 98 babies between the ages of 4 and 24 months.
– Katie Bohn