The Versatility of Heart Rate Variability:  A Look at the Mother/Baby Relationship

In recent years, the postpartum relationship between mothers and babies has been gaining attention.  During these earliest formative years, the connection between these two can have a huge influence on the mental health of the child later in life.  But studying the psychological health of infants has been challenging, to say the least.  So, researchers are getting more creative and looking at biological cues, such as heart rate variability, to examine this essential topic.


An Innovative Solution from Arizona State University


When it comes to this integral relationship, there are a lot of factors to consider.  In a recent study by the Arizona State University Department of Psychology, scientists determined that the vagal tone is actually a reliable measurement for how an infant’s environment will impact his/her development. Specifically, they were looking how a mother’s postpartum depression could affect the child’s behavior, starting at 6 weeks old and following them through the age of 3.  While the participating moms were able to self-report their symptoms, it’s often difficult to gauge what behavior is “normal” for a baby that young.  So, to explain how this indicator ties into mental health, we’re going to have to backtrack a bit.


The Biological Basics


Right now, you’re probably wondering what vagal tonerefers to. You might also need a recap of heart rate variability (HRV), so we’ll offer both here!  The vagal tone is a noninvasive indication related to the cardiovascular system.  Specifically, it’s related to the vagus nerve, which is a cranial nerve that interfaces with your parasympathetic system.  Since the parasympathetic system deals with automatic bodily functions to conserve energy, it usually serves to decrease your heart rate.  Therefore, a low vagal tone equates to lower heart rate variability.  HRV measures the intervals between your heart beats, rather than the beats themselves, to see how quickly your body can bounce back from different situations.  Typically, it’s thought thathigher individual heart rate variability (and high vagal tone) indicates greater resiliency and better fitness, overall.  In this study, researchers took these conclusions to another level.


An Insulating Effect


After measuring the respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) in 6-week-old babies, as well as their mothers’ postpartum depression symptoms, researchers then followed up with them every 3 weeks until the infants were 6 months old. This created a better picture of the true caretaker environment for these families, rather than random measurements.  At 2 years, they invited both the mothers and babies back out to their facilities for additional observation, with a last check-in at 3 years in the form of a self-report.

Overall, their findings seemed to indicate that the infants with lower heart rate variability had more behavior problems when their mothers suffered from greater depression within those first 6 months.  However, when less symptoms were present, they fared significantly better. Previously, prevailing research believed that higher HRV made children more vulnerable to their surroundings, but this study seems to indicate the opposite.  Depending on the environment, low HRV, or low vagal tone, may actual insulate babies as a sort of protective barrier.

With this information, psychologists are hopeful that they can target treatments for the households that need it most.  Providing the parents with proper mental healthcare can improve the environment for future generations—especially when their heart rate variability indicates they’re more at risk.  Plus, they’re learning more and more about this key biological measurement and its relationship with mental health.  To learn more about the Arizona State University study, check out this article.  Or, to learn more about how we incorporate HRV in our treatment programs, contact Focal Points Therapy today.



"My daughter used to come home with at least two Ds on her report card. Now, she is getting all As and Bs, and she's even on the honor roll this semester."

Jane D., Clarksville

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