Parental influence on infant development

Aug 31 2017

Alix Woolard

Hunter researchers are recruiting for a new study examining how infant development in the critical first year of life is influenced by parental wellbeing and lifestyle factors.

Participation in ‘Baby Minds’ involves up to three appointments, ideally starting when the baby is just 6 weeks old then again at 6 months and a year, to help identify differences or delays in development that can potentially be remedied. Fewer visits may be scheduled.

One of the trial co-ordinators, Alix Woolard, says there is little existing research for such an early phase. “We’re interested to find where the earliest symptoms of developmental issues can be detected because, as the brain is forming, it’s a really critical time,” she explains.

“A number of conditions, like autism for example, are only diagnosed at later stages, but if we can introduce an intervention sooner it will increase the likelihood of a better outcome.”

Researchers film the interaction between a mother – or father in some cases – and baby to analyse the unique way that parents communicate.

At six months, the baby is placed in front of a computer equipped with an eye-tracking camera. Researchers can determine which part of the screen the baby is focused on, to determine functional aspects such as attention span, problem-solving and inhibition.

They also perform a Bayley assessment of cognitive, language and motor development, along with sensory testing involving sight, hearing and touch to see if the infants have processing deficiencies.

“This battery of assessments goes beyond what most parents have available to them and we provide a final report that gives peace of mind or, if needed, refer them to follow-up services.” Ms Woolard, a PhD candidate in Psychology at the University of Newcastle, adds.

“The babies absolutely love it because all the assessments involve toys and puzzles.”

Researchers are also interested in how mums cope, screening them for postnatal or clinical depression. Those struggling with stress or general wellbeing are also provided with follow-up services.

The study is looking for 250 mothers and babies, with 11 having already commenced. Testing is conducted at the HMRI Building on the John Hunter Hospital campus and the University of Newcastle Ourimbah campus.

Phone (02) 4033 9160 or email

PhD students Olivia Whalen and Carly Mallise are also involved in the study, under the supervision of psychologist Dr Linda Campbell, occupational therapist Associate Professor Alison Lane and neuroimaging specialist Associate Professor Frini Karayanidis.

* Alix Woolard researches in conjunction with the HMRI Brain and Mental Health Research Program. HMRI partners with the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.