Socioeconomic disadvantage, neural responses to infant emotions, and emotional availability among first-time new mothers

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Abstract

During the early postpartum period, mothers exhibit increased amygdala responses to positive infant expressions, which are important for positive mother-infant relationships. Socioeconomic disadvantage is associated with altered amygdala response to emotional stimuli as well as more negative mother-infant relationships. However, little is known about the role of socioeconomic disadvantage in neural responses specifically to infants. Thus, we examined whether socioeconomic disadvantage (indexed by lower income-to-needs ratio) is associated with neural responses to infant emotions and parenting behaviors among new mothers. Using fMRI, neural responses to infants’ emotional expressions (positive, negative, and neutral faces) were assessed among 39 low- and middle-income first-time mothers during 0–6 postpartum months. Lower income-to-needs ratio was associated with dampened amygdala responses to positive infant faces, but increased amygdala responses to negative infant faces. An indirect effect of socioeconomic disadvantage on emotional availability via amygdala activation suggests that socioeconomic disadvantage is associated with heightened neural sensitivity to infants’ negative emotions, which is further associated with mothers’ intrusiveness observed during interactions with their own infant. The findings suggest that low-income mothers may be more vulnerable to altered neural processing of infants’ emotional expressions which may further influence mothers’ emotional availability during interactions with their own infants.

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