SPUR 2021: Baby Affect and Behavior Study (BABY Study)


Emotion dysregulation refers to experiencing emotions that are excessively intense, prolonged, or unpredictable. Emotion dysregulation is a feature of many mental disorders, and it often interferes with appropriate goal-directed behavior and interpersonal relationships. Emotion dysregulation can be transmitted intergenerationally from parent to child, resulting in increased risk for poor mental health and other problematic outcomes among children. The goal of this research study is to better understand exactly how emotion dysregulation is transmitted to young children early in their development. Specifically, we are examining how mothers’ levels of emotion dysregulation may: (a) program the child’s developing stress response systems during the prenatal period and (b) impact how they interact with their child during the first two years of the child’s life. To do this, we are recruiting approximately 220 pregnant women. During women’s third trimester of pregnancy, we are collecting questionnaire, behavioral, and physiological measures of emotional dysregulation from the women. After they give birth, we then evaluate their newborn's behavior. When the children are 7 and 18 months of age, we follow up with the families to examine how the children physiologically and behaviorally respond to stressful situations along with how the mothers interact with their children. This research project will advance our understanding of the consequences of mothers’ experiences of emotional dysregulation for their children’s early developmental outcomes. This information, in turn, can be used to help identify vulnerable young children and intervene early in order to prevent the development of problematic outcomes later in life.

Student Role

The student will have a vital role in collecting and processing the data for this research project. With regard to data collection, the student will have the opportunity to assist with the research visits when the children are 7 and 18 months of age. The student will be trained on how to collect physiological data from mothers and their young children. This includes attaching sensors to mothers and their children, collecting saliva samples from the children, and collecting hair samples from mothers. In addition, the student will administer standardized protocols that are designed to elicit physiological and emotional responses from the children and capture how mothers care for their young children when the children are distressed. With regard to data processing, the student will have the opportunity to be involved with processing and interpreting physiological information that is being collected from mothers and their children and/or be trained to code the videotaped observations using well-validated systems that quantify mothers’ and young children’s behaviors during the potentially stressful situations. In addition to these roles, the student will be encouraged to formulate specific research questions that are of interest to the student and use data collected for the BABY Study to answer these questions. This involves selecting a topic, reading scientific papers related to the topic, preparing the relevant data for statistical analyses, and conducting the appropriate analyses. These skills give students a glimpse of the graduate school experience while working closely with the faculty mentor and graduate students involved with the BABY Study.

Student Learning Outcomes & Benefits

The student will gain experience working with vulnerable populations of parents and young children that are at-risk for mental health problems and will develop expertise collecting cutting edge measures used in developmental and clinical psychology. In addition, the student will have cultivated a strong research identity that will inform future projects and graduate school program fit. In this way, the student will be well prepared for graduate school in psychology or a closely related field (such as social work, family studies, or clinical mental health counseling). In fact, a large percentage of our former research assistants have successfully applied to these types of graduate programs. Many of our former research assistants have also gone on to medical school given that our research is interdisciplinary and because we work closely with OB/GYNs and pediatricians. The student will also cultivate skills that can be valuably applied to non-profit or industry settings. These include quantitative skills, such as how to measure complex phenomena, collect different types of data, organize large amounts of information in data files, and use the data to answer pressing research questions. These also include communication skills, such as how to publicly present complicated information in a way that can be easily and accurately understood by both academic and lay audiences.

Remote Contingency Plan

All of the BABY Study protocols have been adapted for remote work. Specifically, we have revised our data collection protocols in order to collect the physiological and behavioral data from the mothers and their 7- and 18-month-old children in families’ homes. The revised protocols have been approved by the University of Utah Institutional Review Board, and they ensure that students who are assisting with data collection do not have direct, in-person contact with the research participants. We have also adapted the protocols for processing the physiological and behavioral data so that this work can be done remotely. Students can access the necessary data and software packages from their homes (or other remote locations) in order to clean the physiological data or code the observational data. Finally, I also have continued to host regular one-on-one meetings with students as well as weekly lab meetings through Zoom in order to continue to foster collaborative connections between team members.

Lee Raby
Assistant Professor

College of Social & Behavioral Science

My general mentoring philosophy is organized around three values. First, it is important to me that each student’s activities on the research project match their individual interests. I work with students to develop a plan for their involvement on the research project that will accomplish their immediate and long-term professional goals. This plan involves identifying specific activities on the research project that interest the students, identifying a research question that the students are passionate about, and devising a strategy for helping the students develop the various skills that most closely relate to the students’ future career goals. Second, I value having ongoing collaboration with students. In addition to ensuring that the students are provided with regular opportunities for hands-on learning, I regularly meet with students who are using the data to answer research questions. These meetings are intended to scaffold the students’ growth by ensuring they have the information, resources, and support they need to make progress with their projects. Students involved with the research project also attend weekly lab meetings where we work together to troubleshoot any problems that affect the research project and discuss professional development issues that interest the students. Third, I strive to maintain a lab culture in which all members of our research team feel included and respected. I encourage students of diverse backgrounds to become involved with the lab, and I promote an environment in which students’ varied experiences and perspectives are appreciated.