Close feelings built by mothers’ and fathers’ play with infants and toddlers

Father play with infant builds close feelings[1]

Close feelings built by connecting with mother and father

Background emotions… chart the timeline for the ongoing sense of self, and integrate… changes in internal milieu in response to external or internal events…[2]

…background emotions reflect our basic proximity to others, that is, our fundamental feeling of interpersonal connectedness. Pathologically altered background emotions in depression thus reflect a sense of lost proximity.[3]

In contrast to negative emotions, which can be expressed and regulated by the infant in alone states from the first day of life, positive affect in infancy occurs only in dyadic contexts… To experience and express positive emotions, infants require the participation of an attuned adult who can both construct and coregulate the positive affect in a moment-by-moment process.

The present findings chart one pathway in the development of background emotions—from parent–infant affect coordination to sequences of symbolic play in toddlers…

Close feelings built through play with infants

The shape of infant arousal at play, the background emotion temporal line, showed a markedly different pattern with mother and father, and those were persistent across the first years of life.

The affective contour with mother was more gradual and contained more neutral states. There was typically only one positive emotional peak of longer duration that occurred later in the interaction and was preceded and followed by shared gaze in neutral arousal, as if mother and child were copreparing the intense moment.

…moments of high positive arousal with father were more frequent, were shorter in duration, occurred more quickly, and could have been reached from any previous state. Fathers also showed higher affective matching of the infant’s positive arousal, accentuating episodes of intense emotionality through shared affect. …the degree of father–infant synchrony (coherence) was comparable to the mother’s, suggesting that although interactions with fathers may appear more random, fathers and infants engage in a tightly fitting, well-matched interactive dance to the same extent as mothers.

It is possible that the quick-paced yet fitted interaction with father facilitates specific forms of emotion regulation in infants, perhaps those related to the management of novelty, unpredictability, and quick shifts in arousal. Research on the effects of father absence on children’s difficulties in regulating emotions in social and learning contexts… is consistent with this assumption.

…father– child play partners are less focused on each other and moments of intense affect appear quickly, frequently, and without preparation, an affective line that may direct infants to explore the environment and contribute to their capacity to engage in rapidly changing intense experiences while maintaining a sense of secure base…, internalized through the synchronous interactions with the father.

Close feelings built through play with toddlers

As infants make the transition from preverbal relatedness to verbal representations, a symbolic layer is added to the previously established mutuality in ways that preserve the specific rhythms of the parent– child coordination and thus echo the child’s earliest nonverbal experiences.

The parent-specific contours of infancy were preserved at the toddler stage, and episodes of complex symbolic play with father were of shorter durations, higher frequencies, and quicker latencies. The present findings are the first to show sequential relations between the father’s and child’s symbolic expression at play. Similar to the findings for synchrony, fathers appear to support the child’s creative output to the same extent as mothers while providing moment-by-moment scaffolding.

…the affective components of the interaction played a more central role in toddlers’ interactions with mother. Reciprocal maternal acts were followed by an increase in symbolization; intrusiveness was followed by a decrease in symbolic play and the child’s resort to functional activity; and mothers used the social play mode more than fathers. Reciprocity also emerged as an independent predictor of the child’s symbolic complexity with mother, pointing to the special role of mutual, socially oriented reciprocity for infant development via the relationship with mother.

For fathers, the frequency of positive peaks in infancy predicted toddlers’ symbolic expression above and beyond the father’s concurrent scaffolding and the father–infant synchrony, highlighting the organization of intense positive arousal as a potential contributor from the father– child relationship to emotional development.

Close feelings built by co-occurrences, sequences, and synchrony with mothers and fathers

…the infant’s first two meaningful relationships incorporate all three forms of affective coordination— co-occurrences, sequential relations, and synchrony—into the interaction and may suggest that such coordination is an important aspect of interpersonal intimacy across the life span, with each relationship offering affect matching and synchrony in a unique and special way.[2]


  1. Parke, Ross. “Are Mothers and Fathers Interchangeable?PurpleCrying.info, purplecrying.info/sub-pages/information-for-dads/are-mothers-and-fathers-interchangeable.php. Accessed 30 Jan. 2017.
  2. Feldman, Ruth. “On the origins of background emotions: from affect synchrony to symbolic expression.Emotion 7.3 (2007): 601-611.
  3. Varga, Somogy, and Joel Krueger. “Background emotions, proximity and distributed emotion regulation.Review of Philosophy and Psychology 4.2 (2013): 271-292.

Touch in infancy and adolescence teaches our brain networks what we value

Brain networks have patternmatching layers that make predictions and sense prediction errors. The anatomy shown here for vision has a counterpart for touch.

…the hierarchical neuronal message passing that underlies predictive coding.

…neuronal activity encodes expectations about the causes of sensory input, where these expectations minimize prediction error. Prediction error is the difference between (ascending) sensory input and (descending) predictions of that input.

On the left: this schematic shows a simple cortical hierarchy with ascending prediction errors and descending predictions.

On the right: this provides a schematic example in the visual system.[1]

Touch is crucial to emotion

Affective touch may… convey information about available social resources…[2]

interoception… refers to the perception and integration of autonomic, hormonal, visceral and immunological signals…—or more informally as the sense of the body ‘from within’.

…we propose that emotional content is determined by beliefs (i.e. posterior expectations) about the causes of interoceptive signals across multiple hierarchical levels.

Emotion produces conscious experience

It is tempting to speculate that deep expectations at higher levels of the neuronal hierarchy are candidates for—or correlates of—conscious experience, largely because their predictions are domain general and can therefore be articulated (through autonomic or motor reflexes).

…interoceptive predictions can perform physiological homoeostasis by enlisting autonomic reflexes… More specifically, descending predictions provide a homoeostatic set-point against which primary (interoceptive) afferents can be compared. The resulting prediction error then drives sympathetic or parasympathetic effector systems to ensure homoeostasis or allostasis, for example, sympathetic smooth-muscle vasodilatation as a reflexive response to the predicted interoceptive consequences of ‘blushing with embarrassment’.

Touch is central to selfhood and boundaries

…experiences of selfhood unfold across many partially independent and partially overlapping levels of description… A simple classification, from ‘low’ to ‘high’ levels, would range

  • from experiences of being and having a body…,
  • through to the experience of perceiving the world from a particular point of view (a first person perspective, …),
  • to experiences of intention and agency…,
  • and at higher levels the experience of being a continuous self over time (a ‘narrative’ self or ‘I’ that depends on episodic autobiographical memory,… )
  • and finally, a social self, in which my experience of being ‘me’ is shaped by how I perceive others’ perceptions of me…

In this putative classification, interoception plays a key role in structuring experiences of ‘being and having a body’ (i.e. embodied selfhood) and may also shape selfhood at other, hierarchically higher levels.[1]

The emotions we feel are largely predictions based on past experiences

…interoceptive inference involves hierarchically cascading top-down interoceptive predictions that counterflow with bottom-up interoceptive prediction errors. Subjective feeling states – experienced emotions – are hypothesized to depend on the integrated content of these predictive representations across multiple levels…[3]

Intuition suggests that perception follows sensation and therefore bodily feelings originate in the body. However, recent evidence goes against this logic: interoceptive experience may largely reflect limbic predictions about the expected state of the body that are constrained by ascending visceral sensations.[4]

Reward and motivation are predicted, based on emotions that are predicted, based on touch that was experienced previously

Reward is a complex construct comprised of a feeling and an action. Components of reward include the hedonic aspects, i.e. the degree to which a stimulus is associated with pleasure, and the incentive motivational aspects, i.e. the degree to which a stimulus induces an action towards obtaining it… Typically, the feeling is described as “pleasurable” or “positive” and the actions comprise behavior aimed to approach the stimulus that is associated with reward.[5]

…the representation of self is constructed from early development through continuous integrative representation of biological data from the body, to form the basis for those aspects of conscious awareness grounded on the subjective sense of being a unique individual.

Interoception refers to the sensing of the internal state of one’s body. …interoception… is proposed to be fundamental to motivation, emotion (affective feelings and behaviours), social cognition and self-awareness.[6]


  1. Seth, Anil K., and Karl J. Friston. “Active interoceptive inference and the emotional brain.”  Trans. R. Soc. B 371.1708 (2016): 20160007.
  2. Krahé, Charlotte, et al. “Affective touch and attachment style modulate pain: a laser-evoked potentials study.”  Trans. R. Soc. B 371.1708 (2016): 20160009.
  3. Seth, Anil K. “Interoceptive inference, emotion, and the embodied self.” Trends in cognitive sciences 17.11 (2013): 565-573.
  4. Barrett, Lisa Feldman, and W. Kyle Simmons. “Interoceptive predictions in the brain.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 16.7 (2015): 419-429.
  5. Paulus, Martin P., and Jennifer L. Stewart. “Interoception and drug addiction.” Neuropharmacology 76 (2014): 342-350.
  6. Tsakiris, Manos, and Hugo Critchley. “Interoception beyond homeostasis: affect, cognition and mental health.Philosophical Transactions B: Biological Sciences 371.1708 (2016): 20160002.