Researcher Helps Infants and Toddlers Take Their First Steps on a Path to Lifelong Well-being

Key Findings

  • Early caregiving experiences are crucial for children’s healthy brain and physical development.
  • Interventions that support children in the first years of life can have lasting effects into adulthood.

What experiences made you the person you are today? Many of us will recall specific memories or turning points. For the recipient of a FABBS Early Career Impact Award, Dr. Kathryn Humphreys, some of these moments include doing an 8th grade science fair project on children’s stress, receiving research funding at pivotal times in her career, and becoming a parent. While these events are important, Dr. Humphreys’s research shows that many life-changing experiences happen before we are even old enough to remember them.

Dr. Humphreys is currently an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Human Development at Vanderbilt University and was nominated for this award by the International Society for Developmental Psychobiology. In more than 160 scientific articles, Dr. Humphreys has shown that early life experiences with caregivers – even those that we cannot remember or describe – predict intelligence, brain functioning, physical growth, and mental health in adulthood.

In her research, Dr. Humphreys leverages wearable technologies to understand child development in settings beyond the walls of the laboratory – in children’s homes, schools, and communities. For example, she asks parents to place wearable audio recording devices on their infants to capture all the sounds a child hears and makes during their day. Even before children use words, they can participate in conversations with a caregiver by cooing, squealing, or babbling in response. Dr. Humphreys’s research showed that consistently hearing caregivers’ voices and having back-and-forth conversations as an infant fosters brain development, language learning, and better mental health as they develop into toddlers.  

Sometimes, the technology needed to answer important questions about children’s development does not yet exist. To fill these gaps, Dr. Humphreys has collaborated with engineers to design a device that can measure physical distance between children and their caregivers during their daily lives. A National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) BRAINS Grant for innovative neuroscience research and funding from private foundations allowed her team to undertake the time-consuming task of developing this brand-new technology. Advances in wearable technology are key to conducting scientific studies beyond the confines of a research laboratory and into more real-world settings, like homes and schools.    

Many of Dr. Humphreys’s findings come from her work as a co-investigator of the Bucharest Early Intervention Project in Romania, a study that has observed children growing up in two different settings: institutional care or high-quality foster care. Importantly, children were randomly assigned to each setting, which allows researchers to compare the effects of early experiences with caregivers on children’s lives over two decades later.  

Through this study, Dr. Humphreys and her collaborators confirmed that stable, supportive relationships are key for allowing a young child to develop a feeling of safety and for caregivers to understand and invest in a child’s individual needs. Dr. Humphreys applauds Romania’s ban on institutional care under the age of 7 and argues that U.S. foster care systems should similarly prioritize stable, long-term placements. Dr. Humphreys’s work stands out for her ability to combine different methods and perspectives from clinical psychology and developmental neuroscience. Receiving a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship during her doctoral training and a post-doctoral fellowship from the NIMH allowed her to pursue diverse training and develop a broad range of expertise. For her, science has never felt like a competition, but rather a chance for many thoughtful researchers to come together and share ideas regarding how best to improve the lives of children and families.   

Potential for Future Impact

  • Consider the role of basic and translational developmental science for informing policy decisions.
  • Better understand how children’s early experiences in their everyday lives vary and the impact of that variation through wearable technologies.
  • Use research to inform and improve interventions for children and families.

ISDP Kathryn Humphreys (Headshot)

Dr. Kathryn Humphreys is a recipient of the 2023 Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS) Early Career Impact Award and was nominated by the International Society for Developmental Psychobiology.

The ISDP 56th Annual Meeting takes place in Utrecht, the Netherlands, on July 26-28, 2023.

Read more about Dr. Humphreys’s work at the links below: