Researcher studies infants seeking clues for later behavior

PULLMAN, Wash. — Most parents spend time playing with, and closely watching, their newborns, foreseeing their child’s future based on this gesture or that facial expression.

Masha Gartstein, assistant professor of psychology at Washington State University, is trying to take that one step farther. By systematically studying the behavior of infants, she hopes to find clues that might point to possible behavior problems later in life and to develop ways to prevent them.

“It’s widely agreed that there is a lot going on in the first year of life that is meaningful communication,” said Gartstein, who was born in Moscow and came to this country with her family when she was a child. But the difficulty is figuring out what children are saying before they have learned to say anything at all.

Early in her career, Gartstein worked with teenagers who were in trouble with the law.

“Many of them had shown early markers of behavior problems that had not been addressed. Early intervention could have made a major difference in their lives,” Gartstein said. That got her thinking about the possibility of working with infants to discover possible indicators for later behavior.

She has pursued that research during her post-doctoral work at the University of Oregon, as an assistant professor at the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology in Palo Alto, Calif. and since coming to WSU in 2002. Her research is currently funded by the National Institute for Mental Health.

To find research subjects, Gartstein has worked with the local First Steps program, which helps low-income pregnant women get health and social services, and has also contacted parents based on published birth announcements. She is hoping to assemble a database of 150 case studies for continued research.

Parents are asked to bring in their infants at two-month intervals and stay with them while the babies’ responses are measured to a series of episodes that might provoke joy/happiness, frustration, fear and other emotions, along with infants’ attempt to control these reactions or calm themselves.

The challenges of measuring infants’ responses, though, are numerous. The room in Johnson Tower where Gartstein and her assistants conduct the testing seems cozy and non-threatening, but infants can be fearful about coming into any new environment, which affects their response. As any parent knows, an infant’s mood can be widely variable from one day, or from one hour, to the next, making consistent measurement difficult.

And, Gartstein said, her research assistants must receive many hours of training so that they can produce reliable measurements when they record how infants act in different situations. Researchers measure infants’ changes in facial expression and body movements on a five-point scale.

Gartstein follows up with her research subjects over the years. She hopes that, by tracking her research subjects, she will be able to learn about how to better predict behavior problems and to develop ways to work with young children to lessen the severity of later disruptive behaviors.

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