The parent-child relationship is one of the earliest and most formative experiences for social and emotional development. Synchrony, defined as the rhythmic patterning and quality of mutual affect, engagement, and physiological attunement, has been identified as a critical quality of a healthy mother-infant relationship. Although the salience of the quality of family interaction has been well-established, clinical and developmental research has varied widely in methods for observing and identifying influential aspects of synchrony. In addition, modern dynamic perspectives presume multiple factors converge in a complex system influenced by both nature and nurture, in which individual traits, behavior, and environment are inextricably intertwined within the system of dyadic relational units.
The present study aimed to directly examine and compare synchrony from three distinct approaches: observed microanalytic behavioral sequences, observed global dyadic qualities, and physiological attunement between mothers and infants. The sample consisted of 323 Mexican American mothers and their infants followed from the third trimester of pregnancy through the first year of life. Mothers were interviewed prenatally, observed at a home visit at 12 weeks postpartum, and were finally interviewed for child social-emotional problems at child age 12 months. Specific aspects of synchrony (microanalytical, global, and physiological) were examined separately as well as together to identify comparable and divergent qualities within the construct.
Findings indicated that multiple perspectives on synchrony are best examined together, but as independent qualities to account for varying characteristics captured by divergent systems. Dyadic relationships characterized by higher reciprocity, more time and flexibility in mutual non-negative engagement, and less tendency to enter negative or unengaged states were associated with fewer child social-emotional problems at child age 12 months. Lower infant cortisol was associated with higher levels of externalizing problems, and smaller differences between mother and child cortisol were associated with higher levels of child dysregulation. Results underscore the complex but important nature of synchrony as a salient mechanism underlying the social-emotional growth of children. A mutually engaged, non-negative, and reciprocal environment lays the foundation for the successful social and self-regulatory competence of infants in the first year of life.