Background: Prematurity may affect mother-infant bonding and alter maternal sensitivity to infant's cues. Efficient perception of infants' facial and bodily cues is a crucial aspect of maternal sensitivity and may be challenged by prematurity, as infants' signals may not be easily intelligible. However, it is still unexplored how premature birth impacts the maternal ability to perceive infants' signals. Aims: To investigate whether prematurity influences the perceptual sensitivity of mothers to infants' cues and, in particular, the configural processing of the faces and bodies of familiar and unfamiliar infants. Study design: The inversion effect paradigm was used to evaluate the configural vs. detail-based processing of the face and body of own or others' infants. Preterm mothers were compared to full-term mothers with either low or high maternal sensitivity. Participants: Forty-three healthy full-term and twenty-one preterm mothers of infants aged about six months. Outcome measures: Maternal sensitivity during dyadic interaction, gestational age, accuracy and reaction time in a delayed matching-to-sample task of upright vs. inverted body and face stimuli (i.e., inversion effect). Results: Preterm mothers were found to be less sensitive than the full-term ones. Higher maternal sensitivity during dyadic interaction was associated with lower inversion effect for unfamiliar as compared to own infants' bodies. However, preterm mothers and full-term mothers with low sensitivity showed comparable inversion effect in perceiving unfamiliar infants' faces or bodies. Conclusions: Preterm birth per se does not directly affect body configural processing, but it may be associated to reduced maternal sensitivity, ultimately leading to a less refined perception of own infant's cues.
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