A growing body of evidence suggests that the preterm infants’ risk for adverse neurodevelopmental outcomes may in part stem from physical stressors and prolonged maternal separation experienced during the stay in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) (Montirosso & Provenzi, 2015), as the immature brain of a preterm infant is particularly vulnerable to the quality of experience (Lupien, McEwen, Gunnar, & Heim, 2009). Furthermore, preterm infants in incubators cannot experience the earliest mother-infant interactions which play a crucial role in early regulation of stress response and provides foundations for the development of well-functioning affective relationships and healthy developmental outcomes (Feldman, 2007). Studies focused on the quality of care given to preterm infants in the NICUs have shown that parent-preterm infant closeness during hospitalization enhance neurobehavioral outcomes. However, very few studies have focused on parents’ spontaneous behaviors with their infants in the NICU, observing caregiving routines before discharge, and no study has focused on parents’ communicative behaviors addressed to the preterm infant in incubator and the latter’s responses.
Our longitudinal research project is aimed to examine (a) the presence of early interactive contingencies between mother/father and VPTinfant behaviors in the NICU; (b) the relationship between paternal/maternal emotional conditions, infant perinatal risk factors, and the quality of mother/father-infant interaction; (c) whether the quality of mother/father-infant interaction in the NICU predicts the quality of their interaction at 4 months of corrected age. The parents of 20 VPTinfants were recruited through the NICU of Verona hospital. Parents completed self-report questionnaires measuring depressive symptoms and marital quality in the NICU, and then at 4 months c.a. Fathers were interviewed during the infants’ hospital stay. Each parent was observed in the NICU during communication with the infant in the incubator, and at 4 months during parent-infant face-to-face communication. All dyadic interactions were videotaped and father’s/mother’s and infant gaze, touch, facial and vocal affect were coded using the Infant and Parent Engagement coding scales devised by Lavelli and Beebe (2016). The same coding scales were used with the “NICU” sample of mother-VPinfant dyads at the hospital of Columbia University-NY, in order to compare the two samples of Italian and US dyads. The dynamic of father/mother-preterm infant communication was first analysed through sequential analysis and is currently under investigation using multilevel time-series analysis.