Cardiac vagal regulation in infancy predicts executive function and social competence in preschool: Indirect effects through language

Margaret Whedon, Nicole B. Perry, Susan D. Calkins, Martha Ann Bell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Parasympathetic nervous system functioning in infancy may serve a foundational role in the development of cognitive and socioemotional skills (Calkins, 2007). In this study (N = 297), we investigated the potential indirect effects of cardiac vagal regulation in infancy on children's executive functioning and social competence in preschool via expressive and receptive language in toddlerhood. Vagal regulation was assessed at 10 months during two attention conditions (social, nonsocial) via task-related changes in respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA). A path analysis revealed that decreased RSA from baseline in the nonsocial condition and increased RSA in the social condition were related to larger vocabularies in toddlerhood. Additionally, children's vocabulary sizes were positively related to their executive function and social competence in preschool. Indirect effects from vagal regulation in both contexts to both 4-year outcomes were significant, suggesting that early advances in language may represent a mechanism through which biological functioning in infancy impacts social and cognitive functioning in childhood.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)595-607
Number of pages13
JournalDevelopmental psychobiology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jul 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by grants HD049878 and HD043057 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) awarded to Martha Ann Bell. The content of this manuscript is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NICHD or the National Institutes of Health. We are grateful to the families for their participation in our research. The assistance of our Blacksburg and Greensboro research assistants with data collection and coding is greatly appreciated.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.


  • RSA
  • executive function
  • infancy
  • language
  • social competence
  • vagal regulation


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