Babies are hungry. Emotionally, too!

Interview with Silvia Rigato, PhD, Lecturer at the University of Essex.

Today we are sharing our chat with one rising star of neuroscience, lecturer Silvia Rigato. Together with another amazing scientist, she is the winner of a grant from the prestigious Grand Challenges Exploration, founded by Bill and Melinda Gates. Silvia is on our advisory board and a huge supporter of the Babybrains app. She even tried it out with her second baby in the last few months. Here, she shares some early insight into the amazing set of data she and her team have been collecting over the past years. They offer precious insight, also regarding postnatal depression. Don't miss a word!

Babybrains: What is the one thing you have learned in your studies that no parent should ignore?

Dr Silvia Rigato: Babies enter our world prepared for relationships. They are hungry not only physically, but also emotionally. As you have already read here, newborns are competent beings. Among other skills, they are able to recognise their mother's face and voice at birth. They look out more for faces than other stimuli, they can even discriminate between faces with eyes that look directly at them (eye contact) and eyes that look away. Even more, their very favourite thing to watch is a friendly smiley face that looks straight at them.

Why is that? Of course, it can be related to experience. However short a newborn’s experience might be, it is most likely the case that everyone who approaches a newborn does so with a big smile and wide open eyes! But there is another aspect to consider. The person who displays kind expressions is also most likely the one who will provide food, care and affection. Searching for and looking at this person might also be guided by a clever survival mechanism. We also know that at 4 months of age happy faces elicit a specific neural response in the infant brain. So let’s offer a big smile to our babies as soon as we (visually) meet them - and always after that of course!

Babybrains: Can you tell us a little bit more about your own research field?

Dr Silvia Rigato: My main interest is the development of perceptual and social skills -- how babies develop their visual or tactile abilities, to name but two. I ask questions like:

What happens in the brain when a baby sees his/her mother vs. a stranger face, or when his/her little hands are touched or when he/she sees someone else being touched?

How and when do babies become able to integrate input coming from different senses and cope with the multisensory environment we live in?

I’m afraid I’ve got more questions than answers, but what I find extremely exciting and fascinating is the idea of looking at baby development as early as possible, that is prenatally.

For technical reasons, prenatal research can be quite limited. Regardless, there are a number of studies that indicate that the uterus can be our first multisensory world. Especially in the case of twins, it may even be the place where we practice our social skills (or the precursors of these, anyway). For example, an interesting study found that twins intentionally caress each other already in the womb Castiello et al., 2010).

Together with my friend and colleague Dr Karla Homboe, I have recently embarked on an exciting longitudinal project that involves about 70 infants coming to the Essex Babylab at different points in time. The very first time they come in, they are still in their mother’ womb. We record their heart rate and movement. When they come back at 2 weeks of life, 4-, 6- and 9 months, they take part in a series of tasks that investigate the precursors of their attentional and social abilities.

Our research aims to track the developmental trajectories of such skills and their associated brain development. We hope to determine how these early trajectories affect later intellectual and social abilities.

Prepping a newborn for EEG.

Babybrains: What is your most exciting finding so far?

Dr Silvia Rigato: We have just started analysing part of the dataset of this research, and it’s becoming increasingly evident that the mental/emotional state of the mothers in the first 2 weeks following childbirth is a good predictor of some aspects of the infant temperament across the first 9 months. More specifically, the level of depression that the mother experiences at that critical time affects the infant negative affect (distress), not only at birth, but also in the first few months of life. This is really interesting in terms of designing timely intervention and support programmes for mothers-to-be and their children.

Babybrains: What is your favourite method?

Dr Silvia Rigato: I really value the use of a combination of methods. Behavioral observations such as visual looking paradigms can track what attracts the infants’ attention. Recordings of their brain activation through electroencephalogram (EEG) can tell us exactly when in time a particular stimulus is processed. We can also use parent questionnaires to gain a richer view of the infant development.

Babybrains: Is there a parenting book or website you would recommend?

Dr Silvia Rigato: Why love matters.

Babybrains: Can you sing the Babybrains song?

Dr Silvia Rigato: Of course! Below what I use to practice ;)

Take home message from Dr Rigato? Connect with your baby. Through vision, through touch, during pregnancy, straight after birth. Forever.

And if you need an app to get you started, here it is (on Google Play Store and on the App Store).

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