Translating Research

In this Research Reflections blog we have a guest contributor, Dr Pascal Vrticka from the University of Essex, who discusses his work transforming his research on attachment in children into an accessible resource for new parents.

As an Associate Professor in Psychology and Principal Investigator of the Social Neuroscience of Human Attachment (SoNeAt) Lab at the University of Essex (Colchester, UK), I have been investigating the neuropsychological basis of human relationships, caregiving and attachment for almost two decades. The more I learned about parent-infant interaction and relationship quality, the stronger my motivation became to translate our findings for the benefit of as many parents, practitioners and organisations as possible. In this blog, I reflect upon our recent successful translation efforts in collaboration with the charity Babygro.

My SoNeAt Lab works towards better understanding the neuropsychological basis of human relationships, caregiving and attachment. We mainly draw upon attachment theory, which is one of the most comprehensive contemporary psychology frameworks. Attachment theory describes how we form and maintain relationships across the life span, with a special focus on early parent-infant interaction and relationship quality.

By summarising our own studies and work from other groups around the globe, we recently formulated the first functional neuro-anatomical model of human attachment, which we call NAMA. NAMA shows that attachment plays an important role in the way our brain processes positive emotions and reward during social interaction and connection. Attachment also affects how our brain responds to negative experiences like stress, fear and pain. Moreover, attachment explains differences in our brain’s ability to regulate our emotions and how we think about ourselves and others.

We have known for a long time that attachment strongly impacts our physical and mental wellbeing and health. With NAMA’s help, we now understand much better why this is the case – attachment is literally everywhere in the brain. This is also the reason why high-quality parent-infant interactions and relationships are so important for infant social, emotional and cognitive development, which is tightly linked to infant brain development during the first years of life.

Once we had established the above insights as part of our NAMA, I was looking into ways of making them more widely accessible – beyond our usual outputs like scientific articles and presentations that tend to be quite technical and hard to understand for people outside academia. This aim, however, proved rather difficult. Besides my teaching and student supervision, I had little time for translating our work. I also did not have much experience engaging with parents and their infants and therefore did not know what information would be most beneficial for supporting parent-infant relationships.

Luckily, I was approached by Dr Amanda Lucas, the Babygro Charity founder. Amanda took great time and care to illustrate in pictures and with minimal words how infants’ brains develop, and how high-quality parent-baby communication leads to optimal later life (mental) health and wellbeing. Through her experience as a researcher and lecturer in Developmental Psychology, she began to lead weekly classes for parents and their infants in which they build the four brain networks underpinned by NAMA in pictures hanging in the trees. These workshops helped Amanda to find the right combination of scientific content, engaging illustrations and explanations to produce the accessible Babygro Book for parents, practitioners and organisations.

What is unique about the Babygro Book is that all its explanations are inspired by state-of-the-art neurobiological insights based on NAMA. The Babygro Book has five main components, summarised as CHATS:

  • How parents can become proficient at reading and responding to their infants’ cues and communications.
  • How attachment theory can help parents to understand both their own attachment history as well as how infant-parent attachment is formed.
  • How talking to infants can help building infants’ understanding of the self and others as well as their emotion regulation skills.
  • How all the above elements are affected by parent-infant synchrony – “turn-taking” exchanges involving mutual eye contact, facial expressions, gestures and vocalisations.

Importantly, the Babygro Book’s focus is less on prescribing parenting advice and more on providing a direct line to the latest research findings. We hope that in this way, parents can feel empowered about the parenting choices they make. The Babygro Book can be downloaded free-of-charge here.

Through my collaboration with Amanda and the Babygro Charity, I learned many invaluable research translation skills. Most importantly, Amanda showed me how our scientific concepts and explanations can be simplified by using fewer technical terms and more illustrations, all without losing precision and detail. As a consequence, I now feel better prepared and much more confident when interacting with parents, practitioners and organisations. Amanda and I are very pleased that we continually receive very positive feedback about the Babygro Book as well as Babygro’s parent-infant workshops.  Indeed, the Babygro Book has already been downloaded by many health professionals, policy makers (including the UK and Australian governments), and those who work in children’s services. Babygro’s newly offered training for professionals is already being taken up by practitioners within the NHS and children’s charities and we look forward to making it available across the UK with confidence and positive anticipation. Reflecting on my collaboration with the Babygro Charity, I would like to strongly encourage more researchers to engage in research translation. It is a win-win for everybody involved.

Dr Pascal Vrticka