Otitis media and respiratory sinus arrhythmia across infancy and early childhood: Polyvagal processes?

The Family Life Project Key Investigators

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Otitis media (OM)-or middle-ear inflammation-is the most widely diagnosed childhood illness, with evidence implicating OM in a range of distal problems (e.g., language delays, attention problems). Polyvagal theory (Porges, 1995, 2007) posits that there also are likely important connections between middle-ear functioning and children's developing parasympathetic nervous systems (PNS). Using prospective longitudinal data from the Family Life Project (n = 748), we tested within- and between-person relations between indicators of OM (middle-ear spectral gradient angle; SGA) and children's trajectories of respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA)-a marker of parasympathetic control of the heart-between the ages of 7 and 35 months. The results suggested that, irrespective of age, children with indications of chronic OM (low cumulative SGA) tended to show atypical RSA reactivity to moderate cognitive challenge, compared with the reactivity patterns of their low-OM-risk peers (mid-to-high cumulative SGA). Specifically, on average, low-OM-risk children showed RSA decreases in the context of challenge in infancy, with the magnitude of the decline weakening and eventually changing direction (i.e., RSA increase) by 35 months. In contrast, those with indicators of chronic OM evinced blunted RSA responses to challenge, irrespective of age. Within-person, temporal bouts of OM-risk were not predictive of within-person changes in RSA reactivity across early childhood.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1709-1722
Number of pages14
JournalDevelopmental psychology
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (1PO1HD39667 and 2PO1HD 039667). Cofunding was provided by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, NIH Office of Minority Health, NIH-Office of the Director, National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities, and the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research. We would like to express our sincere gratitude to all of the families, children, and teachers who participated in this research and to the Family Life Project research assistants for their hard work and dedication.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 American Psychological Association.


  • Longitudinal
  • Otitis media
  • Parasympathetic nervous system
  • Polyvagal theory
  • Respiratory sinus arrhythmia


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