Experiences from conception to age six have the most important influence of any time in the life

Highlights of Current Projects

Video-Feedback Interaction Guidance for Improving Interactions Between Depressed Mothers and their Infants (VID-KIDS)

Postpartum depression (PPD) is a major public health issue. Known as “the thief that steals motherhood” since symptoms obstruct a mother’s capacity for understanding and enjoying her baby, PPD affects approximately 1 in 5 moms. Built via “serve and return” interactions (e.g. baby smiles, mom smiles back), sensitive and responsive exchanges are the foundation for healthy child development but are diminished by PPD, resulting in interactions that place children at risk for behavioural and cognitive problems. Infants perceive PPD as stressful; stressors stimulate the brain’s hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis (HPA) and trigger stress hormone (cortisol) release, which, in turn, negatively affects developing infant brains by decreasing brain volume. Infants’ critical periods of brain development are vulnerable to long-term effects of cortisol, explaining some of the problematic developmental outcomes observed in children of depressed mothers. (read more)

Fetal Programming of Infant Stress Reactivity

Recent studies suggest that pregnant women who report high levels of stress, anxiety, or depression have babies who are at increased risk for poor developmental outcomes. For example, infants of distressed mothers have a higher incidence of "difficult" temperament, behavioural and emotional problems, and physical disease. Unfortunately, these effects can last a lifetime. Research also suggests that when women are stressed, anxious, or depressed during pregnancy, the way in which these psychological problems affect their babies is through "stress hormones". Exposure to maternal stress hormones during formation of the baby's stress response system can alter its function and make it over-reactive to stress throughout the child's life. These changes may explain why children whose mothers were distressed during pregnancy are at increaased risk for developmental and health problems. (read more)

Fetal Programming of Infant Stress Reactivity and Atopic Disease  

This proposed Allergen Strategic Initiative is an extension of the ongoing Fetal Programming study, co-funded by CIHR and the Alberta Centre for Child, Family and Community Research. The Fetal Programming study seeks to examine: (1) the impact of prenatal psychophysiological stress on infant stress reactivity, and (2) potential of optimal postnatal care to moderate any observed association between prenatal psychophysiological stress and infant stress reactivity. The proposed Allergen Strategic Initiative will extend the Fetal Programming study to explore the influence and interactions of maternal psychophysiological stress, infant stress reactivity, and postnatal infant care on the development of the atopic diseases of asthma (wheeze) and dermatitis in infants. The proposed Allergen Strategic Initiative will form the foundation for a future proposal to CIHR that will further explore atopic disease trajectories in the longitudinal sample. (read more)

Attachment and Child Heath (ATTACH): Developing & Testing a Reflective Function Intervention

Parents suffering toxic stress (depression, addiction, violence) are unable to respond sensitively to their infants which interferes with forming secure parent-infant attachments necessary for healthy child development. Secure attachment is influenced by parental Reflective Function (RF); parents’ capacity to understand and thus regulate their own feelings/behaviour toward their child. Few RF interventions exist and focus only on mothers’ understanding of their own psychological caregiving representations but do not promote learning RF skills via practice, and ignore co-parents. Building on this research ATTACH has developed and pilot tested a RF intervention designed for mothers and co-parents; intended as an add-on program to existing parenting programs (Nurturing Parenting, Thera-play). We are currrently working to report our progress from the ATTACH pilot studies. (read more)

Helping Early Adjustment and Relationships to Thrive (HEART) Project

The HEART Study is a quasi-experimental (pre/post) evaluation of the HEART Program, already being employed in selected centres in Ontario and Alberta that serve high risk parents (Aboriginal, teenage, and those known to Child Welfare). Developed by the Infant Mental Health Promotion Program at the Hospital for Sick Children (key program partner), HEART is designed to augment other supports offered by partner agencies by providing all caregivers of children exposed to toxic stressors with detailed reports and developmental guidance on their child's current milestones in social-emotional adjustment. In other words, caregivers are taught to be sensitive and respond to their children in targeted ways that will promote their children's mental health and behavioural adjustment. Caregivers are supported to do so over the 4 month program. Pilot data on 33 children suggest modest effect sizes from the intervention. To assess effectiveness in the proposed study, hair samples are collected from children to assess stress hormone (cortisol levels) and the Ages and Stages Questionnaire 3rd Edition and Social Emotional assessments will be completed pre- and post-intervention. If found to be effective, the HEART program is ready for wide-spread adoption. (read more)

APrON: Alberta Pregnancy Outcomes and Nutrition

The primary aims of the Alberta Pregnancy Outcomes and Nutrition (APrON) study are to determine the relationships between maternal nutrient intake and status ,before, during and after gestation, and (1) maternal mood, (2) birth and obstetric outcomes, and (3) infant neurodevelopment. APrON is an ongoing prospective cohort study that recruited pregnant women early in pregnancy. It has approximately 5000 participants (2200 pregnant women, their offspring and many of their partners). We have collected comprehensive maternal nutrition, anthropometric, biological and mental health data at multiple points in the pregnancy and the post-partum period, as well as obstetrical, birth, health and neurodevelopmental outcomes of these pregnancies. The study continues to follow the infants through to 5 years of age. The vision of the study is to improve the health and long-term potential of mothers and newborn babies in Alberta by identifying the role of nutrition in mental and neurodevelopmental disorders, and long-term neurocognitive function. (read more)

Parenting Research on Mental Illness, Stress & Epi/Genetics (PROMISE)

PROMISE’s primary objective is to understand whether mothers’ and fathers’ parenting moderates the influence of childhood adversities and genetic susceptibility to environmental influences on 3‐5 year old children’s neurodevelopment (in behavioural and cognitive domains). Genetic susceptibility is typically associated with variants in genes for the dopamine receptor, monoamine oxidase A, and serotonin transporter that interact with environmental exposures for better or worse children’s outcomes, depending on the quality of the exposure. The second objective will examine whether mothers’ and fathers’ parenting moderates the influence of childhood adversities and genetic susceptibility on 3‐5 year old children’s epigenomic profile. PROMISE intends to follow a subsample of 600 families from the APrON cohort and used mixed effects models to test the primary hypothesis that parenting moderates the influence of adversities and genetic susceptibility on children’s neurodevelopment. (read more)

Parental Reflective Function and Preschool Children’s Development

Parental Reflective Function and Preschool Children’s Development will examine the association between parental RF and quality of relationships with their 4 year olds and the cognitive, language and social-emotional development of their children one year later. Thus, accounting for known covariates (e.g. stress, family income, parental depression, child temperament, child sex). This research will not only test the widespread assumption that both mothers’ and fathers’ RF relates to children’s development, but will do so at an important developmental time point – preschool. Understanding parents’ influences on preschool children’s development will inform and guide numerous parenting programs in Canada and abroad that are designed to promote children’s social and school success, especially for those vulnerable to social ills such as poverty and parental addiction. (read more)