Susan Swingler has joined the University of Oxford as a DPhil student in Social Intervention and Policy Evaluation. She has an MPhil in Programme Evaluation and a BSocSci (Hons) in Psychology from the University of Cape Town and Rhodes University. Most of her professional life had been spent facilitating, monitoring and evaluating education and youth development programmes in South Africa and Vietnam. More recently she completed an internship with UNICEF Cambodia, where she conducted internal quality assurance for independent evaluations in the child protection and social protection sections. She has long had an interest in preventative early interventions implemented in the first 1000 days of life, as this period is well-established as a window of both vulnerability and opportunity for children’s long-term health and well-being.
Her DPhil research project will be embedded in a randomised-controlled trial of an early attachment-based intervention targeting mothers or primary caregivers and their children (aged 0-12 months) accessing perinatal mental health services in England. More broadly, the RCT aims to determine the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of the intervention in improving maternal sensitivity and mental health, and infant and toddlers’ attachment security and longer-term psychosocial functioning. This draws on a wealth of evidence showing that the foundations for individuals’ psychosocial functioning are laid in the context of an early relationship with a primary caregiver, with secure attachments promoting greater psychological resilience to stress. Susan’s research will focus will be on the biological mechanisms underlying the infant and toddlers’ attachment-related outcomes, including stress regulation and epigenetic modification, and will involve the collection of additional biological data from infants and toddlers participating in the study.
This research expands on recent discoveries in the field of epigenetics that suggest that when infants and toddlers are exposed to adverse environments where secure attachment to a caregiver is compromised, they may experience excessive and prolonged stress. This dysregulation can in turn lead to persistent epigenetic changes that manifest in their longer-term psychosocial functioning. Some children may also be more genetically susceptible to the effects of caregiving environment. Here, the same children who are vulnerable to the negative effects of adverse environments may thrive in more positive environments. Building on these discoveries, Susan’s research will assess whether the early attachment-based intervention: a) reduces stress dysregulation and subsequent epigenetic changes in infants and toddlers, and b) demonstrates increased effectiveness for those who are more genetically susceptible to the influence of early care.
The research addresses a gap in experimental research that clarifies whether interventions promoting attachment security can also disrupt the biological embedding of adversity in early life for those most vulnerable. The findings will have implications for potential scale-up of these interventions within perinatal mental healthcare settings in England, while also increasing our understanding of how to improve children’s life chances.