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Our research centers around the novel dyadic construct of emotional connection, and experiential ways to enhance it for improved early relational health.
Here are some ways we are studying emotional connection, relevant interventions, and their impacts:
The COMBO Initiative aims to broadly understand the impact of both SARS-CoV-2 infections and the pandemic on the developing fetus, future child health, and future maternal health. With this important research, we can identify and treat the physical and early relational health concerns that may be caused either by having COVID, or by steps taken to prevent the spread of COVID, such as social distancing and isolation.
COMBO is a large, multidisciplinary longitudinal prospective study being conducted across a network of local and national research partners, including olfaction pioneer Monell Chemical Senses Center and the CDC. Together, we are investigating what emotional connection is, what future outcomes it is associated with, and what promotes it. Our findings will aid in not only understanding the effects of this worldwide event on the “COVID generation” (infants born during the pandemic), but also the effects of emotional connection on the resiliency of parents and families.
With assessments developed by a dedicated team of specialists across the fields of neurodevelopment, pediatric neurology and endocrinology, maternal health, and socio-emotional functioning, COMBO is studying numerous outcomes, including but not limited to:
- Effects of in utero SARS-CoV-2 exposure on congenital defects, risk of asthma, changes in breastfeeding and sleep health practices
- Postnatal brain development and growth of infants exposed to SARS-CoV-2 during pregnancy.
- Neurological and psychiatric symptoms and sequelae in mothers
- Adverse effects of SARS-CoV-2 and separation practices on mother-child emotional connection
- Effects of maternal immune activation and stress on biological processes, including immune function, placental development and gene regulation
Read our published findings here.
Read media coverage of COMBO’s work here.
Preterm birth is known to increase risks for many long-term challenges, but some of these risks can be mitigated when mother-infant emotional connection is fostered in the first weeks of life. FNI’s 10-year Randomized Control Trial (RCT) in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) of NewYork-Presbyterian’s Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital showed promising results in:
- Altered infant brain activity
- Improved cognition, language, and attention in childhood
- Improved maternal mental health and caregiving behaviors
- Physiologic regulation for mother and child up to 5 years later
In order to bring this crucial intervention to all mothers and children across populations, we are currently completing a multi-site replication trial of FNI, and expanding the trial out of the NICU into the Well Baby Nursery at the Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital.
This meta-analysis examines if contemporary early dyadic parent/caregiver-child interventions can support early relational health. In the wake of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ 2021 policy statement on the lifelong health implications of childhood toxic stress and the buffering effects of foundational relationships, early relational health interventions have field-wide and popular demand.
For evidence-based, equitable implementation to be possible, the field needs comprehensive research into how we promote those buffering relationships at scale. Such impactful relational health research needs to be done in a relationally-grounded way—in partnership, across a network of parents/caregivers, researchers, funders, and clinicians.
To that end, we are excited to partner with organizations such as Reach Out and Read, a longstanding champion of early relational health in pediatrics. Together we will develop a method for, and rigorously test real-world outcomes of, equipping pediatricians with the lens of emotional connection.
The dyadic lens of emotional connection allows us to observe the elements of mutually sensitive and reciprocal interactions. Through this lens, we can see that a parent and child are like magnets—an invisible force attracts them to each other. You can separate the magnets as many times as you want, but there is a pull that brings them back together.
To measure this observable phenomenon in a clinical setting, we developed and tested a tool: the Welch Emotional Connection Screen (WECS). Preliminary research supports the WECS as a valid screen for rating mother-infant emotional connection associated with healthier infant biobehavioral phenotype (including stress response).
The research emphasis for the WECS is expanding to include the 0-3 year age range, so that we can support all families during this critical developmental phase. We are currently studying it in a broader population through the COMBO Initiative, and into our Well Baby Nursery FNI initiative at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital.