A Randomized Controlled Trial to Improve Mother-Infant Synchrony Among Women With Childhood Adversity

  • End date
    May 1, 2024
  • participants needed
  • sponsor
    University of Arizona
Updated on 14 July 2022
Accepts healthy volunteers


Childhood adversity affects almost two-thirds of the US population, is a major risk factor for the leading causes of disease and increases US economic health burdens. Childhood adversity also alters biologic systems, such as the oxytocin hormone, that can affect attachment behavior. This innovative study has the potential to advance science and improve mother-infant interaction by testing an early life, home-based, multisensory behavioral intervention (called ATVV), targeting the oxytocin system, to promote synchronous early mother-infant interaction, especially critical for mothers who have experienced childhood adversity.

This two-group randomized clinical trial will test the ATVV's effect on oxytocin system function and quality of mother-infant interaction. The investigators will enroll 250 first-time healthy mothers carrying a single baby who have a history of childhood adversity, and obtain baseline data in their third trimester of pregnancy. Soon after birth (before hospital discharge), mothers (and babies) who continue to be eligible are randomized into the intervention group and taught to give ATVV daily for 3 months, or randomized into the Attention Control education group and taught safe infant care. After birth, the investigators check-in frequently with mothers through weekly phone calls. There are 3 study visits at 1, 2 and 3 months after birth that include survey questions and collection of maternal blood and infant saliva. Mothers and babies are also video-recorded at 3 months after birth for 4 minutes to assess mother-infant interaction. The investigators follow-up with a phone call at 6 months after birth.

While both groups will benefit from the content and attention the investigators give mothers, the investigators hypothesize that, compared to the education group, mothers and infants in the intervention group will have improved oxytocin system function and more synchronous mother-infant interaction.


Childhood adversity (e.g., abuse, neglect, or household dysfunction), is a common experience significantly contributing to the leading causes of death and increased US economic health burdens. Childhood adversity causes long-term alterations on the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems well into adulthood, including dampening of the neuropeptide oxytocin (OXT). A healthy OXT system facilitates responsive social engagement and promotes maternal-infant (M-I) synchrony (reciprocal gaze, affect speech, and touch). Optimal M-I synchrony fuels early brain development and prevents low empathy, disruptive behavior, poor social adaptation, cognitive deficits, and psychopathology in children. The investigators posit that mothers with childhood adversity will have more difficulty with M-I synchrony, due in part to a dampened OXT system, and will benefit from interventions that improve responsive, nurturing, engagement by epigenetic regulation of the OXT system. Most interventions are costly, complex, and time-consuming. The investigators aim to fill this gap by testing whether a simple early behavioral intervention (ATVV) will improve OXT system function and M-I synchrony in mothers with childhood adversity.

The ATVV (Auditory, Tactile, Visual, Vestibular) is a 15-minute behavioral intervention that is a multisensory infant massage contingent on infant cues. The investigators extend the known success of ATVV with preterm infants to full-term infants. The investigators will compare M-I synchrony at 3 postnatal months in 250 first-time mothers (and their full-term infants) randomized to apply ATVV daily from birth to 3 months (n =125) or receive infant care education in an attention control group (n = 125). The investigators apply a rigorous measure of M-I synchrony that micro-codes video-recorded M-I behavior quantifying shared gaze, affect, speech, and touch. Coding requires only 3-minutes of interaction and is valid when infants can reliably interact starting by 3 months of age. The investigators will also assess ATVV's effect on maternal and infant peripheral OXT level, a known biomarker of M-I synchrony. OXT levels relate to quality of M-I synchrony, yet the investigators extend this knowledge to identify an epigenetic role of the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR). The investigators will analyze maternal plasma for OXTR methylation, OXTR gene expression, OXTR protein, and oxytocin peptide in pregnancy, and at 1, 2, and 3 postnatal months (along with infant saliva OXT).

The investigators propose a single-site, randomized, two-group, attention-controlled clinical trial (N=250 M-I dyads) to test the efficacy of the ATVV multisensory behavioral intervention to improve OXT system function and M-I synchrony. Adult, nulliparous, English or Spanish speaking women carrying a single fetus, and scoring 2 or higher on the Adverse Childhood Experiences scale will be enrolled. The investigators will obtain baseline OXT, demographics and survey data in the third trimester. Soon after birth (pre-hospital discharge), M-I dyads who continue to be eligible (e.g., full-term gestation) are randomized into the intervention group (n = 125) and taught to administer ATVV daily for 3 months or randomized into the Attention Control group (n = 125) and taught normal safe infant care. There are postnatal study visits at 1, 2 and 3 months. The investigators follow-up with a phone call at 6 postnatal months (3-months after the intervention period ends) to assess self-report parenting behavior (a proxy for quality of M-I interaction) that the investigators also measure at postnatal months 1, 2, and 3.

Aim 1: Evaluate the efficacy of daily ATVV over 3 postnatal months among mothers with childhood adversity. The investigators hypothesize that compared to the Attention Control group (n=125), M-I dyads in the ATVV group (n=125) will exhibit:

H1: Higher oxytocin function (i.e., decreased OXTR methylation at candidate sites, and increased OXTR messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA), OXTR protein, and OXT in maternal plasma, and increased OXT in infant saliva) at 1, 2, and 3 postnatal months.

H2: More synchronous eye-to-eye gaze [primary], positive affect [primary], speech, and touch at 3 postnatal months.

Aim 2: Identify molecular mechanisms in the OXT system underlying M-I synchrony (N=250).

H1: Lower M-I synchrony will be associated with dampening of the OXT system, evidenced by increased OXTR methylation at candidate sites, and decreased OXTR mRNA, OXTR protein, and OXT in maternal plasma, and decreased OXT in infant saliva at 3-postnatal months.

Regression based methods (including covariates) will assess ATVV effects on M-I synchrony and OXT measures, and identify relations among M-I synchrony and oxytocin measures. Clustering methods will be used to discover molecular profiles. An early behavioral intervention that successfully promotes M-I synchrony in vulnerable women through epigenetic regulation of the OXT system can then be tested in a multi-site clinical implementation trial with other high-risk groups.

Protocol: The Recruiter will introduce the study to potentially eligible pregnant women. Eligible women who are interested in joining will be consented and scheduled for a 3rd trimester baseline study visit at the university. The investigators will draw blood for OXT measures, and collect data in REDCap on demographics, maternal characteristics, and self-report surveys. Research team members will keep track of when participants have given birth and meet them in a study site hospital before discharged. The investigators will collect data on mother and infant health, birth events, and other covariates. At the hospital visit, women are randomly assigned to either the ATVV group and taught how to administer the intervention on a daily basis, or are randomly assigned to the Attention Control group and taught safe infant newborn care.

All participants will receive daily texts to measure daily stress, and intervention participants also document frequency of the intervention. Using Participatory Guidance to address women's needs, the investigators will call women each week after birth for a check-in. In the intervention group, any challenges with the intervention will be discussed and problem-solved. In the Attention Control group, age-appropriate safe infant care will be discussed.

After the hospital visit, monthly study visits at 1, 2, and 3 months include collecting maternal blood and infant saliva, and self-report surveys in REDCap. Women will either complete REDCap surveys online before each visit, or complete them at the study visit. To check intervention fidelity, mothers in the ATVV group demonstrate how they perform the intervention with their infant. The team member instructs mothers how to adapt the ATVV to their maturing infant and discuss any challenges with the intervention. Mothers in the Attention Control group are taught age-appropriate safe infant care.

At the 3rd month study visit, the investigators collect behavioral outcome data on M-I synchrony. All M-I dyads will be video recorded freely interacting with each other for 4 minutes (coding occurs on the last 3 minutes). Video recording occurs when the infant is alert and ready to interact, > 30 minutes after the end of a breastfeeding or formula feeding, and data collection order may be adjusted if the baby is sleepy or fussy. Interactions are micro-coded frame by frame on a computerized system (Noldus, Wageningen, The Netherlands), consistent with previous research on parent-infant synchrony. Coders, blinded to group assignment, are trained to 90% inter-rater reliability. Our last interaction with participants is a phone call at 6-postnatal months to explore duration of the intervention's effect using the Parenting Stress Index.

Condition Parent-Child Relations, Maternal Behavior, Infant Behavior
Treatment Attention Control, ATVV
Clinical Study IdentifierNCT04818112
SponsorUniversity of Arizona
Last Modified on14 July 2022


Yes No Not Sure

Inclusion Criteria

Healthy (gestational diabetes is acceptable)
Greater than or equal to 18 years old
Nulliparous (previous miscarriage(s) and/or abortion(s) acceptable)
Speak and read English or Spanish
Score greater than or equal to 2 on the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) survey
Expect to deliver a healthy infant
Expect to deliver a full-term infant (greater than or equal to 37 weeks and 0/7 days)
Expect to deliver a singleton infant

Exclusion Criteria

Have no access to a cell phone during the first 3 postnatal months
Carrying multiple fetuses
Taking anti-depressant(s) during pregnancy
Taking illicit drugs
Do not speak and read English or Spanish
Under 18 years of age
Score less than 2 on the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) survey
Deliver an infant diagnosed with conditions that could affect normal development or the oxytocin system
Pre-term gestation (less than 37 weeks and 0/7 days)
Intrauterine growth retardation (IGR)
Small for gestational age (SGA)
Chromosomal anomaly including
Down syndrome (trisomy 21)
Trisomy 13
trisomy 18
Klinefelter syndrome
Turner syndrome
Triple X syndrome
Congenital anomaly including
Heart defect
Musculoskeletal defect
Neural tube defect
Cystic Fibrosis
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