Eric Hodges, PhD, RN, sits in front of two monitors watching a mother feed her infant child, joystick in hand. Dr. Hodges is a new breed of nurse researcher-scientist who is using high tech data collection to study the cues that mothers and children give each other during the feeding process. As he watches the interactions — innate reflexes, facial and body responses — he moves the joystick to zoom in on his research subjects. He watches for muscle tension and relaxation, eye contact intensity, and general engagement between the dyad.
At a computer across the room, a master’s prepared student worker is coding videotapes of mothers and their children and their responses to each other during feeding. Is the mom watching TV? Does the child turn his head away from the bottle perhaps signaling sufficient food intake? Is baby fussy or content or active or passive? What does this all mean if feeding is a central interaction in the relationship between mother and child? How might a father who misses his child’s feeding cues contribute to food that child’s intake in later life?
These are some of the questions asked in the NIH funded longitudinal study that Dr. Hodges is conducting in the observational laboratory in the UNC Chapel Hill School of Nursing Biobehavioral Laboratory. The laboratory, the only one of its kind at the University, is equipped with six cameras and sophisticated audio equipment to give researchers multiple views of subject interactions and to hear the verbal cues that mothers and infants give each other, too. Cooing, crying, singing, humming, whispering and talking are all recorded and then later analyzed according to a scheme developed by researchers at Baylor School of Medicine where Hodges completed his post-doctoral education before being recruited to UNC Chapel Hill.
The literature says that infants have the capacity to self-regulate and their food intake needs can vary from feeding to feeding. Parents who allow the child to push away when they are full or who understand and are attuned to those cues that infants and children give — and Hodges has identified these cues for fullness — may be supporting healthier behaviors for life.
One goal of the study is to provide education for prospective parents about ways to support a healthy feeding environment. Another is to track youngsters based on the types of cues they received from parents to see if outcomes overtime contributed to obesity and Type II Diabetes onset in children.
Hodges was a Nurse Practitioner before he decided to go back to school to complete a PhD and become a nurse scientist. Hodges notes that the research he and other nurse scientists conduct helps support RNs at the bedside who use the evidence-based knowledge he develops to improve the quality of care for patients and their families.