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.