Background Children with callous-unemotional (CU) traits, a proposed precursor to adult psychopathy, are characterized by impaired emotion recognition, reduced responsiveness to others' distress, and a lack of guilt or empathy. Reduced attention to faces, and more specifically to the eye region, has been proposed to underlie these difficulties, although this has never been tested longitudinally from infancy. Attention to faces occurs within the context of dyadic caregiver interactions, and early environment including parenting characteristics has been associated with CU traits. The present study tested whether infants' preferential tracking of a face with direct gaze and levels of maternal sensitivity predict later CU traits. Methods Data were analyzed from a stratified random sample of 213 participants drawn from a population-based sample of 1233 first-time mothers. Infants' preferential face tracking at 5 weeks and maternal sensitivity at 29 weeks were entered into a weighted linear regression as predictors of CU traits at 2.5 years. Results Controlling for a range of confounders (e.g., deprivation), lower preferential face tracking predicted higher CU traits (p =.001). Higher maternal sensitivity predicted lower CU traits in girls (p =.009), but not boys. No significant interaction between face tracking and maternal sensitivity was found. Conclusions This is the first study to show that attention to social features during infancy as well as early sensitive parenting predict the subsequent development of CU traits. Identifying such early atypicalities offers the potential for developing parent-mediated interventions in children at risk for developing CU traits.
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