Here's looking at you, kid: attention to infant emotional faces in mothers and non-mothers

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  • The copyright line for this article was changed on 28 June 2016 after original online publication.

Abstract

Infant facial cues play a critical role in eliciting care and nurturance from an adult caregiver. Using an attentional capture paradigm we investigated attentional processing of adult and infant emotional facial expressions in a sample of mothers (= 29) and non-mothers (= 37) to determine whether infant faces were associated with greater task interference. Responses to infant target stimuli were slower than adult target stimuli in both groups. This effect was modulated by parental status, such that mothers compared to non-mothers showed longer response times to infant compared to adult faces. Both groups also responded more slowly to emotional faces, an effect that was more marked for infant emotional faces. Finally, it was found that greater levels of mothers' self-reported parental distress was associated with less task interference when processing infant faces. These findings indicate that for adult women, infant faces in general and emotional infant faces in particular, preferentially engage attention compared to adult faces. However, for mothers, infant faces appear to be more salient in general. Therefore, infant faces may constitute a special class of social stimuli. We suggest that alterations in attentional processing in motherhood may constitute an adaptive behavioural change associated with becoming a parent.

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