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Keywords:

  • cardiac vagal tone;
  • heart rate variability;
  • respiratory sinus arrhythmia;
  • social behavior;
  • behavioral problems

Abstract

Cardiac vagal tone is a construct that describes the functional relationship between the brainstem and the heart. Cardiac vagal tone is measured by quantifying the amplitude of respiratory sinus arrhythmia, a component of heart rate variability reflecting the functional output of vagal pathways on the heart. Although there is an extensive literature evaluating baseline vagal tone and its relation to behavior, the relation between individual differences in the ability to regulate cardiac vagal tone and behavior has been theoretically vague. This article introduces a theoretical model to explain the relation between vagal tone during steady states and vagal reactivity (i.e., the vagal brake) in response to environmental challenges. Based upon the proposed model, it was hypothesized that infants who had difficulties in regulating the vagal brake (i.e., decreasing cardiac vagal tone) during social/attention tasks would have difficulties developing appropriate social interactions requiring reciprocal engagement and disengagement strategies. Data from 24 infants are presented. The findings support the model and demonstrate that infants with difficulties in decreasing vagal tone during a social/attention task at 9 months of age had significantly more behavioral problems at 3 years of age. © 1996 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.