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Violence Research Centre


Laura Katus, Research Associate at the Centre for Family Research (CFR), Sara Valdebenito, Research Associate at the VRC and Claire Hughes, Deputy Director of the CFR and member of the EBLS Consortium have recently received a financial grant from the Cambridge Reproduction SRI’s Incubator Fund for a project entitled “Mother knows best: exploring new mothers’ narratives about their child and links with perinatal adversity across five low- and middle-income countries”.

The project, which will expand the current third wave of data collection of EBLS, has a strong interdisciplinary outlook, drawing on the CFR’s expertise in assessing parenting and child development and the VRC’s expertise in assessing early adversity. Its outline states: “Perinatal experiences of adversity (e.g. exposure to violence) can have lasting impacts on mothers and children. Recent findings from the Cambridge-led Evidence for Better Lives Study (EBLS) indicate high levels of community and intimate partner violence across eight diverse low- and middle-income settings. Speech samples provide an insight into mother’s thoughts and feelings toward their child, and are associated with caregiving behaviours. Capitalising on a new wave of EBLS, we aim to collect maternal speech samples in Ghana, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, to explore the impact of psychosocial adversity on mother-child relationships in an unprecedented geographical breadth and analytical depth”.

The EBLS Study started taking shape in 2015, when the framework was developed. The eight sites were researched and selected between 2016-2018 and the Foundational Study was launched in July 2018. A further stage involved researching effects of COVID’s restrictions on families.

The new project will run from January to June 2022 and will engage universities that have been involved with the EBLS Study: Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania; Hue University, Vietnam; University of Ghana, Legon, Greater Accra, Ghana; University of Kenaliya, Ragama, Sri Lanka and University of the Philippines, Manila, The Philippines.


Background and scope of the project

Around the world, children bear the greatest burden of poverty1. Adversity can affect mothers’ thoughts and feelings about, and subsequently their behaviour toward their child2. A recent US study highlights the value of gathering speech samples from disadvantaged pregnant women, to provide insight into maternal thoughts and feelings toward their child as a predictor of later caregiving3.

The Cambridge-led Evidence for Better Lives Study (EBLS) followed 1,208 women living in Ghana, Jamaica, Pakistan, the Philippines, Romania, Sri Lanka, South Africa, and Vietnam from pregnancy into the early postnatal period4. EBLS mothers reported high levels of exposure to violence: (a) in the community - from 30% in Romania to 87% in Jamaica; (b) in childhood - from 27% in Pakistan to 72% in Jamaica; and (c) in intimate partner relationships - from 15% in Vietnam to 42% in Ghana5. Stay-at-home rules to limit the COVID-19 pandemic increased intimate partner violence6, accentuating concerns about the impact on early mother-child relationships of perinatal exposure to violence within and outside the home.

This project will examine how adversity impacts maternal thoughts and feelings about their child. Having demonstrated the feasibility of remotely collecting speech samples at the two best resourced EBLS sites (Romania/Vietnam), the project’s team will extend this work to Ghana, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. The project builds on previous work using speech samples, in which Claire Hughes and colleagues7,8 showed significant cross-cultural contrasts in maternal ‘mind-mindedness’ (the propensity to view one’s child as an individual with their own thoughts and feelings). The project also extends Laura Katus’ PhD work, which included in-depth assessments of infant development in The Gambia, in context of early adversity and the family environment9,10.

Drawing on open-ended three-minute speech samples11 (n = 150 mothers per site with infants aged 18-24 months living in Ghana, Sri Lanka and the Philippines) the team will explore mothers’ thoughts and feelings about their child, and their relationship with them. The team will boost the depth of cross-cultural analyses by supplementing ratings of emotional tone with transcription-based codes of (i) mind-mindedness (proportion of child attributes coded as mentalistic); and (ii) self-focus (relative use of ‘I’/ ‘me’ and infant focused talk). Adding these two constructs, now prominent in psychological theory of relationships and mental health12,13 enables multi-dimensional analyses that minimise the risk of spurious conclusions. The team’s own work7,8 and a recent review14 indicate culturally stable links between maternal mind-mindedness and child outcomes.


Objectives of the project

Utilising mothers’ narratives of their relationship with their child, this project complements the quantitative EBLS data collection in several ways. Specifically, the team aims to: 

  • Collect n = 150 speech samples per site in Ghana, Sri Lanka and the Philippines.
  • Examine cross-cultural variations in mothers’ emotional tone, mind-mindedness and self focus.
  • Examine the link between stress during the last trimester of pregnancy on maternal mind-mindedness.
  • Assess the generalizability of associations between perinatal exposure to adversity and mothers’ perceptions of their child / their relationship with their child.

The project will generate a unique dataset, combining quantitative questionnaire-based measures from previous EBLS waves with more open-ended analyses of speech samples. Including such a mixed-methods approach magnifies the benefits of this research both in informing theory of child development, as well as practical policy implications. It will also help capacity building by training researchers in the partner sites.

Findings will be communicated in talks, conferences and journal articles. Insights gained will highlight important new avenues for research and will feed into ongoing funding applications to support future waves of EBLS.



  1. Nelson III, C. A. (2017). Hazards to early development: the biological embedding of early life adversity. Neuron, 96(2), 262-266.
  2. Christie, H., Hamilton-Giachritsis, C., Alves-Costa, F., Tomlinson, M., Stewart, J., Skeen, S., ... & Halligan, S. (2020). Associations between parental trauma, mental health, and parenting: A qualitative study in a high-adversity South African community. Social Science & Medicine, 265, 113474.
  3. Guyon‐Harris, K. L., Carell, R., DeVlieger, S., Humphreys, K. L., & Huth‐Bocks, A. C. (2021). The emotional tone of child descriptions during pregnancy is associated with later parenting. Infant Mental Health Journal, 42(5), 731-739.
  4. Valdebenito, S., Murray, A., Hughes, C., Băban, A., Fernando, A. D., Madrid, B. J., ... & Eisner, M. (2020). Evidence for Better Lives Study: a comparative birth-cohort study on child exposure to violence and other adversities in eight low-and middle-income countries-foundational research (study protocol). BMJ open, 10(10), e034986.
  5. Evidence for Better Lives Consortium. (2019). Addressing violence against children: Mapping the needs and resources in eight cities across the world. Institute of Criminology, Cambridge.
  6. Hamadani, J. D., Hasan, M. I., Baldi, A. J., Hossain, S. J., Shiraji, S., Bhuiyan, M. S. A., ... & Pasricha, S. R. (2020). Immediate impact of stay-at-home orders to control COVID-19 transmission on socioeconomic conditions, food insecurity, mental health, and intimate partner violence in Bangladeshi women and their families: an interrupted time series. The Lancet Global Health, 8(11), e1380-e1389.
  7. Hughes, C., Devine, R. T., & Wang, Z. (2018). Does parental mind‐mindedness account for cross‐cultural differences in preschoolers’ theory of mind?. Child development, 89(4), 1296-1310.
  8. Fujita, N., & Hughes, C. (2021). Mind‐mindedness and self–other distinction: Contrasts between Japanese and British mothers’ speech samples. Social Development, 30(1), 57-72.
  9. Katus, L., Hayes, N. J., Mason, L., Blasi, A., McCann, S., Darboe, M. K., ... & Elwell, C. E. (2019). Implementing neuroimaging and eye tracking methods to assess neurocognitive development of young infants in low-and middle-income countries. Gates open research, 3.
  10. Katus, L., Mason, L., Milosavljevic, B., McCann, S., Rozhko, M., Moore, S. E., ... & Prentice, A. (2020). ERP markers are associated with neurodevelopmental outcomes in 1–5 month old infants in rural Africa and the UK. NeuroImage, 210, 116591.
  11. Sher-Censor, E. (2015). Five Minute Speech Sample in developmental research: A review. Developmental Review, 36, 127-155.
  12. Aldrich, N. J., Chen, J., & Alfieri, L. (2021). Evaluating associations between parental mind-mindedness and children’s developmental capacities through meta-analysis. Developmental Review, 60, 100946.
  13. Humphreys, K. L., King, L. S., Choi, P., & Gotlib, I. H. (2018). Maternal depressive symptoms, self-focus, and caregiving behavior. Journal of affective disorders, 238, 465-471.
  14. Aival-Naveh, E., Rothschild-Yakar, L., & Kurman, J. (2019). Keeping culture in mind: A systematic review and initial conceptualization of mentalizing from a cross-cultural perspective. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 26(4), e12300.


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