Early in life, social engagement is facilitated by effective regulation during times of rest and stress. Physiological regulation during social play and in response to sudden environmental changes or social stressors may play an important role in sustaining social engagement in infancy and facilitate the acquisition of early social-communication skills. The aim of this study was to investigate the role of physiological activity during social play, including respiratory sinus arrhythsmia (RSA) and heart rate-defined attention, in the early emergence of social-communication skills. Using RSA as an index of vagal tone, we measured vagal tone, vagal suppression, and heart rate-defined sustained attention during a social interaction with a caregiver (i.e., the Still-Face procedure) in 21 infants aged 3-4 months. At 9 months, caregivers reported on their infant’s early social-communication skills. Results suggest that RSA, RSA suppression, and heart rate-defined sustained attention to a caregiver are significantly associated with early-emerging social-communication skills at 9 months. In addition, RSA and heart rate-defined sustained attention during social play were highly related. Suppression of RSA during the Still-Face phase of the infant-caregiver interaction emerged as a particularly strong predictor of later-developing social-communication skills, including 9-month-olds’ ability to use eye gaze, facial expression, and gestures to communicate.
NOTE: This study used the CamNtech Actiwave Cardio which was discontinued in Jan 2019 – The direct replacement is Actiheart 5 which offers superior performance.