Interpreting infant emotional expressions: Parenthood has differential effects on men and women

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Interpreting and responding to an infant's emotional cues is a fundamental parenting skill. Responsivity to infant cues is frequently disrupted in depression, impacting negatively on child outcomes, which underscores its importance. It is widely assumed that women, and in particular mothers, show greater attunement to infants than do men. However, empirical evidence for sex and parental status effects, particularly in relation to perception of infant emotion, has been lacking. In this study, men and women with and without young infants were asked to rate valence in a range of infant facial expressions, on a scale of very positive to very negative. Results suggested complex interaction effects between parental status, sex, and the facial expression being rated. Mothers provided more positive ratings of the happy expressions and more extreme ratings of the intense emotion expressions than fathers, but non-mothers and non-fathers did not. Low-level depressive symptoms were also found to correlate with more negative ratings of negative infant facial expressions across the entire sample. Overall, these results suggest that parental status might have differential effects on men and women's appraisal of infant cues. Differences between fathers' and mothers' perceptions of infant emotion might be of interest in understanding variance in interaction styles, such as proportion of time spent in play.

Original languageEnglish
JournalQuarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
Publication statusPublished - 10 Mar 2016


  • Depression
  • Emotion
  • Face processing
  • Gender differences
  • Parenting


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