Posted 01.25.2017 | by AMRA

Dispositional mindfulness is the generalized tendency to be mindful in daily life, but mindfulness levels can also be situational. Parenting-specific mindfulness, for example, is mindfulness occurring within the context of parenting. It’s the tendency to be nonjudgmental, accepting and emotionally aware of and compassionate toward oneself and one’s child, and to be able to listen to one’s child with full attention. Parenting-specific mindfulness may benefit the parent-child relationship by helping parents and children cope with stress within the family relationship.

Laurent et al. [Developmental Psychology] tested this hypothesis by measuring the impact of both maternal dispositional mindfulness and parenting-specific mindfulness on maternal and infant stress hormone (cortisol) levels during and after exposure to a stressor.

The researchers recruited 73 low-income mother-infant pairs (77% Caucasian; average maternal age = 27; 51% married; median income=$10,000-$19,000) who were part of a larger longitudinal study. At 3 months postpartum, the mothers completed self-report measures of dispositional mindfulness (the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire), parenting-specific mindfulness (Interpersonal Mindfulness in Parenting-Infant Version) and the degree of life stress during the prior three months.

At 6 months postpartum, the mother-infant pairs participated in a “still face” task in which the mother maintained an unwavering neutral facial expression while face-to-face with her infant for two full minutes. The mother’s failure to react to the infant’s attention-getting bids during this task is stressful for the infant, who striving to regain the mother’s attention and failing to do so, may start to whine or cry in response to not receiving attention.

Samples of maternal and infant saliva were obtained prior to, immediately after, and 15 and 45 minutes after the still face task. The saliva was assayed for cortisol, a hormone that reflects physiological stress. The researchers then studied the impact of maternal dispositional and parenting-specific mindfulness (as measured at 3 months postpartum) on maternal and infant peak cortisol levels during the still face task, and also the rate it took for cortisol levels to return to baseline after the task (the rate of recovery from stress).

Parenting-specific mindfulness demonstrated significant effects, while dispositional mindfulness failed to show significance on any of the outcomes. Higher levels of parenting-specific mindfulness were significantly associated with faster maternal cortisol recovery (accounting for 14% of the variance).

There was also a significant interaction between parenting-specific mindfulness and the degree of life stress experienced by the mothers experienced on cortisol recovery rates after the still face task (accounting for 24% of the variance). Mothers who were low on parenting-specific mindfulness and high on life stress had a faster rate of cortisol return to baseline; mothers with high levels of parenting-specific mindfulness and high levels of life stress showed a slower rate of cortisol return to baseline.

Lastly, infants of mothers who had high levels of parenting-specific mindfulness and high on levels of life stress had lower peak cortisol levels (accounting for 10% of the variance). In other words, mindful parents with high stress lives showed an extended stress response with slow recovery, while their offspring showed less of a peak stress response.

It may be that parenting-specific mindfulness prolongs maternal stress arousal since the mindful mothers are more fully attentive to their infants’ distress, and this higher degree of maternal attunement in turn protects their infants from higher physiological stress levels.

The study underscores the value of construing mindfulness as something embedded and deployed within specific life contexts such as parenting, rather than as a disposition that generalizes equally across all behavioral domains. It demonstrates that parental mindfulness influences and moderates physiological stress in mother-infant pairs. The pattern of findings in this study may be specific to lower-income families, as they may, on average, experience higher levels of life stress compared to families with higher incomes.

Reference:

Laurent, H. K., Duncan, L. G., Lightcap, A., & Khan, F. (2016). Mindful parenting predicts mothers’ and infants’ hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal activity during a dyadic stressor. Developmental Psychology.

[Link to abstract]