The first postpartum months constitute a critical period for parents to establish an emotional bond with their infants. Neural responses to infant-related stimuli have been associated with parental sensitivity. However, the associations among these neural responses, parenting, and later infant outcomes for mothers and fathers are unknown. In the current longitudinal study, we investigated the relationships between parental thoughts/actions and neural activation in mothers and fathers in the neonatal period with infant outcomes at the toddler stage. At the first month postpartum, mothers (n = 21) and fathers (n = 19) underwent a neuroimaging session during which they listened to their own and unfamiliar baby's cry. Parenting-related thoughts/behaviors were assessed by interview twice at the first month and 3-4 months postpartum and infants' socioemotional outcomes were reported by mothers and fathers at 18-24 months postpartum. In mothers, higher levels of anxious thoughts/actions about parenting at the first month postpartum, but not at 3-4 months postpartum, were associated with infant's low socioemotional competencies at 18-24 months. Anxious thoughts/actions were also associated with heightened responses in the motor cortex and reduced responses in the substantia nigra to own infant cry sounds. On the other hand, in fathers, higher levels of positive perception of being a parent at the first month postpartum, but not at 3-4 months postpartum, were associated with higher infant socioemotional competencies at 18-24 months. Positive thoughts were associated with heightened responses in the auditory cortex and caudate to own infant cry sounds. The current study provides evidence that parental thoughts are related to concurrent neural responses to their infants at the first month postpartum as well as their infant's future socioemotional outcome at 18-24 months. Parent differences suggest that anxious thoughts in mothers and positive thoughts in fathers may be the targets for parenting-focused interventions very early postpartum.
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