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When studying for a doctoral degree (PhD), candidates submit a thesis that provides a critical review of the current state of knowledge of the thesis subject as well as the student’s own contributions to the subject. The distinguishing criterion of doctoral graduate research is a significant and original contribution to knowledge.
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Mother-infant interactions are fundamental to infant social-emotional development. Touch is an influential channel through which mothers and their infants convey emotion and affection and establish a strong connection. In a series of two studies, the types of maternal touch and the functions of mutual touch during mother-infant interactions were investigated. Further, touch in at-risk populations (e.g., depressed mothers, VLBW/preterm infants) and the relationship between the quality of the dyadic relationship and touch were examined in order to elucidate the association between relationship indicators on tactile communication.
Study 1 examined maternal touching in 41 mothers with and without depressive symptomatology. Mothers and their 4-month-old infants participated in the Still-Face (maternal emotional unavailability) and the Separation (maternal physical unavailability) procedures. The types of mother touch were coded using the Caregiver-Infant Touch Scale (CITS; Jean, Stack, & Fogel, 2009; Stack, 2010; Stack, LePage, Hains, & Muir, 1996). Study 2 examined the communicative functions of mutual touching during the Still-Face procedure between mothers and their 5½-month-old full-term (n = 40) and very low-birthweight/preterm (VLBW/preterm; n = 40) infants. The functions of mutual touch were coded using the Functions of Mutual Touch Scale (FMTS; Mantis, Burnside, & Stack, 2012) and the quality of the mother-infant relationship (emotional availability) was coded using an adapted version of the Emotional Availability Scales Coding Guidelines (EA Scales; Biringen, Robinson, & Emde, 1988, 1998), an observational and relational measure designed to rate dimensions of maternal emotional availability and child behavior.
Results from Study 1 indicated that mothers with higher levels of depressive symptoms engaged in less touching following the perturbation in the Still-Face procedure, whereas mothers with lower levels of depressive symptoms maintained stable levels of touching across both interaction periods. Mothers with higher levels of depressive symptoms displayed less playful/stimulating types of touching. Results from Study 2 indicated that full-term infant-mother dyads spent significantly more time engaged in playful and regulatory mutual touch compared to VLBW/preterm infant-mother dyads who spent significantly more time engaged in attention-centered, unbalanced, and guided mutual touch. Higher levels of maternal sensitivity and regulatory mutual touch were associated for full-term infant-mother dyads, while lower levels of maternal sensitivity were associated with unbalanced mutual touch for VLBW/preterm infant-mother dyads.
Together, the findings provide insight into how both mothers and infants participate in shaping and co-regulating their interactions through the use of touch. By identifying the patterns of maternal touch and the functions of mutual touch present during different contexts in both typically developing and at-risk dyads, we are able to identify disrupted patterns of communication. Ultimately, findings have direct implications for parenting practices and for the design of preventative intervention programs of early touch stimulation for at-risk infants and their parents.