Babies’ anxiety levels are related to their fathers’ nervousness, not their mothers’

Picture a one-year-old infant crawling across a table top. Half way across, the surface becomes transparent so that it appears there is a deep drop. On the other side is the infant’s mother or father, encouraging them to crawl across the “visual cliff“. Will the baby’s anxiety levels be influenced more by the mother’s own anxiety or the father’s?

This was the question posed by Eline Möller and her colleagues in what is the first ever study to examine paternal behaviour in the classic visual cliff paradigm. Forty mothers took part, forty-one fathers, and their one-year-olds. Only one parent participated at a time, so some infants crawled towards their father, others crawled towards their mother.

Surprisingly perhaps, mothers’ and fathers’ verbal and facial encouragement – examples included clapping, smiling and calling out “you’re doing great” – made no difference to the infants’ anxiety levels and boldness (as measured by the baby’s body language, facial expressions, crying, and avoidance of the cliff).

What about the parents’ own anxiety as revealed in their gestures, posture, facial expressions and nervous exclamations such as “be careful”? Here the researchers found that the anxiety of male and female infants was correlated with their father’s anxiety, but not their mother’s. We can’t know the causal direction here – it’s possible that the infants were responding to their fathers’ (but not their mothers’) nervousness, or that the fathers (unlike mothers) were made nervous by their baby’s anxiety, or possibly both.

Either way, the result suggests that fathers may play a more significant part than mothers in the anxiety levels of their infants, at least in situations involving physical hazards. This is consistent with evolutionary based claims that human fathers have tended to be more responsible for teaching their offspring how to deal with external challenges (such as strangers and new places), whereas mothers deal with “internal” situations, such as feeding and comforting. Such arguments are supported by research showing that fathers usually encourage more risk-taking and competition in their children than mothers.

Möller and her team also looked at the babies’ trait levels of nervousness and anxiety. They found that among the babies who are anxious more generally (not specifically in the visual cliff situation), there was an even stronger link between infant and paternal anxiety. For infants with an anxious temperament, then, fatherly confidence seems to be especially important.

The study has some important limitations including the fact the people who coded the behaviour and body language of the babies and parents could clearly see the gender of the parent involved (this raises the possibility that the researchers’ prior assumptions about mothers and fathers may have influenced how they performed their coding). However, the coders were unaware of the study aims and hypotheses.

Limitations aside, research on the way fathers interact with their young children is rare and this study makes a novel contribution. It may also have clinical implications. The results suggest “anxious signals from the father can maintain or exacerbate fearful behaviour of the child, whereas with non-anxious and confident behaviour a father can teach his child that the world is safe,” the researchers said. “In this sense, fathers can act as a buffer against child anxiety.”


Möller EL, Majdandžić M, & Bögels SM (2014). Fathers’ versus mothers’ social referencing signals in relation to infant anxiety and avoidance: a visual cliff experiment. Developmental science, 17 (6), 1012-28 PMID: 24909521

–further reading–
It’s thanks to Dad that girls are more cautious than boys
How becoming a father changes your brain

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.