Simona de Falco


In our species, children’s survival and wellbeing largely depend on parental caregiving. For this reason, several branches of social science investigate human parenting from different perspectives: developmental psychology, psychodynamics, clinical psychology, affective neuroscience.

Among the different dimensions of parenting, sensitive responsiveness, defined as the ability to adequately identify and respond to infant signals allowing for efficient caretaking, is widely recognized to be a key feature. In typically developing children, adult sensitive responsiveness is associated to positive child outcomes in the social-affective as well as in the cognitive domain.

But what is the contribution of sensitive responsiveness to the developmental pathways of children with developmental disorders? Can the promotion of sensitive responsiveness result in positive outcomes in children growing up in disadvantaged contexts? Which factors influence the level of sensitive responsiveness of human adults? Is there a biologically based disposition to sensitive responsiveness? In my research work I’m trying to answer these and other questions about adult sensitive responsiveness to children using different methods consistently with a multi-level measurement approach that is necessary to understand the complex processes that regulate human parenting.

Research directions

Parental responsiveness and developmental trajectories of children with atypical development

Sensitive caregiving might be even more crucial for the development of children with developmental disorders than for typically developing children. However, the child deficits might affect caregiver responsiveness in what could become a vicious circle. Using semi-structured observation of parent-child interaction we measure dyadic emotional availability and attunement in parents and children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Down syndrome and other Developmental Disorders investigating the concurrent and predictive associations with child cognitive and social-affective skills measured in ecological context and through standardized diagnostic tools.

The role of representational dimensions of parenting (parental ideas, perceived parental role, etc.) assessed through self-report questionnaires is also taken into account. In a recent extension of this research work, we are investigating the predictive role of mother- child interaction quality at preschool age on the level of attachment security of school-age children with developmental disorders, taking also into account related social and emotional skills. Results of this research line have important clinical implications in terms of understanding possible determinants of phenotype and differential environmentally-mediated developmental trajectories of children with atypical development. Moreover, findings of this research area can be useful for the development and evaluation of early parent-child intervention for children with Developmental Disorders.

Promoting child wellbeing by supporting sensitive parenting in at-risk families 

Child healthy development is largely influenced by parent–child interaction and a secure parent–child attachment is predictively associated with positive outcomes in several domains of child development. However, the parent–child relationship can be affected by different psychosocial and socio-demographic risk factors that undermine its quality and in turn play a negative role in short and long term child psychological wellbeing. This research line examines predictors of mother and child psychological health in families with psychosocial and/or socio-demographic risk factors specifically taking into account the mediating role of maternal sensitive responsiveness and secure mother-child attachment.

We study risk and protection factors both at a binary level (presence/absence) and at continuous (intensity) level also investigating the cumulative effect of different co-occurring factors. More importantly, we aim to assess the efficacy of an early home visiting intervention program that support parenting skills from pregnancy until toddlerhood in at-risk families living in Trentino region. Semi-structured observation in natural environment, standardized diagnostic tests and self-report questionnaires are longitudinally used to assess risk and protection factors and as outcome measures of maternal and child psychological health.

Neurobiological correlates of responsiveness to infant cues and the transition to parenthood

Famous ethologist Konrad Lorenz postulated that the “babyschema” triggers innate releasing mechanisms for care and affection, enhancing chances of offspring survival. In the human species, the adaptive value of adult responsiveness to infants extend to child psychological development which is mainly modulated within an intersubjective framework. The old phylogenetic history of adult–infant caregiving relationship suggests that specific brain circuits might mediate adult responsiveness to infants.

Using neuroimaging techniques (fMRI, TMS) and behavioural paradigms (SC-IAT, dot probe task), we aim to identify signatures of adults' general disposition to respond to infant faces, independent from parenthood status, and the specific nature of responses that infant cues are able to trigger in human adults (attention capture, empathic attunement, motor preparation).

In an extension of this research line, we intend to longitudinally investigate continuity and stability of responsiveness to infant cues along the transition to parenthood in first time parent-to-be, testing the predictive role of general responsiveness to infants on salient dimensions of parenting (beliefs and behaviors). Finally, we also investigate which factors influence the level of adult responsiveness to infant cues taking into account age, gender, personality and attachment history within a multi-level measurement approach.

Internal collaborations

Paola Venuti, full professor
Andrea Caria, associate professor
Arianna Bentenuto, post-doc
Noemi Mazzoni, post-doc

External collaborations

Institute of Medical Psychology and Behavioral Neurobiology, University of Tuebingen, Germany
Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Child and Family Research Lab, NIH, USA
Laboratorio di Psicometria, Dipartimento di Psicologia, Università della Campania

Selected publications

Scientific articles:

  • Bentenuto, A., De Falco, S., & Venuti, P. (2016). Mother-Child Play: A Comparison of Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome, and Typical Development. Frontiers in Psychology,7, 1829. published on the website Frontiers in the following page Mother-Child Play: A Comparison of Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome, and Typical Development.
  • de Falco S., Emer A., Martini L., Pruner S., Venuti P. (2014). Predictors of mother-child interaction quality and child attachment security in at-risk families. Frontiers in Psychology, DOI=10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00898.
  • Senese V.P., de Falco S., Bornstein M.H., Caria A., Buffolino S., Venuti P. (2013). Human Infant Faces Provoke Implicit Positive Affective Responses in Parents and Non-Parents Alike. PLOSONE, 8(11), e80379.
  • Venuti P., de Falco S., Esposito G., Zaninelli M., Bornstein M.H. (2012). Maternal functional speech to children: a comparison of autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, and typical development. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 33(2), 506-517.
  • Venuti P., Caria A., Esposito G., De Pisapia N., Bornstein M.H., de Falco S. (2012). Differential brain responses to cries of infants with autistic disorder and typical development: an fMRI study. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 33(6), 2255-64.
  • Caria A. de Falco S. (equally contribution as first author), Lee S., Esposito G., Rigo P., Birbaumer N., Bornstein M.H. (2012). Neuroimage, 60(2), 884-93. 
  • de Falco S., Venuti P., Esposito G., Bornstein M.H. (2011) Maternal and Paternal Pragmatic Speech Directed to young Children with Down Syndrome and Typical Development. Infant Behavior & Development, 34(1):161-9.
  • de Falco S., Esposito G., Venuti P.,  Bornstein M.H. (2010) Mothers and fathers at play. with their children with Down syndrome: Influence on child exploratory and symbolic activity. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 23 (6) 597-605
  • Venuti P., de Falco S., Esposito G., Bornstein M. H. (2009), Mother-Child Play: Children with Down syndrome and Typical Development. American Journal on Intellectual Disabilities and Development, 114:4, 274-278.
  • de Falco S., Esposito G., Venuti P., Bornstein M. (2008), Fathers' play with their Down Syndrome children. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 52:6, 490-502. 


The research line on “Promoting child wellbeing by supporting sensitive parenting in at-risk families” was partially granted by the Provincia Autonoma di Trento “Scommettiamo sui Giovani” project


Further information can be found at the following webpage: ODFLab - Laboratorio di Osservazione Diagnosi e Formazione