Esther Leerkes

Jefferson-Pilot Excellence Professor of Human Development and Family Studies

Associate Dean for Research

Health and Human Sciences Office of Research

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

Email Address:

Phone: 336.256.0310


My primary research focus centers around parent-child relations in infancy and early childhood.
Within this area, I have pursued three primary themes:

  1. Identifying contextual, biological and psychological factors that contribute to sensitive maternal behavior, particularly in response to negative child emotions;
  2. Examining links between maternal sensitivity and subsequent child outcomes such as emotion regulation, attachment security, behavior problems, adjustment to school, and obesity risk;
  3. Examining the impact of parenting a child with unique temperamental characteristics on adult development, well-being, and relationships during the transition to parenthood.

I enjoy collaborating with students on a range of topics that fit their interests. In the recent past that has included examination of the links between marital conflict and infant outcomes and the role of race in parental emotion socialization and related child outcomes.

Read an overview of Dr. Leerkes’ research in the 2013 Edition of the UNCG Research Magazine.

Current Projects

See a recent article about iGrow in the 2019 edition of the UNCG Research Magazine

iGrow – Infant Growth and Development Study

iGrow is an NICHD-funded study that will be ongoing through 2025. This is a multidisciplinary project in which we are testing a biopsychosocial model of the early development of risk for obesity. We are focusing on several key biological (weight-related hormones, cortisol, vagal regulation, inflammatory markers), psychological (emotion regulation, depression), and social factors (various aspects of parenting) during pregnancy and the first 2 years of life. We are testing this model with an innovative, multi-method, longitudinal study of infants and their families (n = 299) beginning in the prenatal period that addresses these factors across the first two years of life.

Other investigators on this collaborative project include Cheryl Buehler (Professor Emerita of Human Development & Family Studies), Lenka Shriver (Nutrition) and Laurie Wideman (Kinesiology). There are multiple opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students to be involved in this project. Please see our project website if interested.

iGrow UP – Infant Growth and Development Study

In 2023, NICHD awarded us a new grant to follow families from iGrow when the children are 3.5 to 5 years old to continue to understand the early causes of childhood obesity. We will also enroll and additional 75 families to participate at age 2, 3.5, and 5 to replace families we have lost over time in iGrow. One of our goals is to better understand how different aspects of child self-regulation play a role in weight outcomes. In psychology/human development, the emphasis is on regulation during stressful events; in nutrition the emphasis is on regulation of eating behavior. But few studies have examined both simultaneously, and those that have tend to measure one better than the other so the results are open to interpretation based on measurement concerns.

We have crafted a series of tasks to comprehensively and comparably measure how young children regulate their behaviors, emotion, attention and physiology in food related tasks and non-food tasks. We will: (1) determine if they are separate constructs or a single construct; and assuming they are separate (2) identify their unique antecedents and (3) determine which matters most for weight outcomes under different conditions (e.g., for children with reactive temperaments, for children living in obesogenic feeding environments). The results will have implications for intervention and prevention efforts to prevent childhood obesity and future research in this area. Dr. Jessica Dollar is a key new member of our research team for this project

iGrow CARES – Infant Growth and Development Study

NICHD awarded my colleagues Dr. Kierra Sattler, Dr. Cheryl Buehler, and I another grant in fall 2023 to re-contact iGrow families to better understand how COVID-related stressors and supports impacted parent and child well-being over time. Up to now, we have focused exclusively on mothers and children. In this sub study we will also focus on the experiences of co-parents including residential and non-residential biological fathers, stepparents, same sex partners, or grandparents etc. In this project we will take a risk and resiliency perspective to find out which individuals, under which conditions, and at which time points were most likely to experience negative or positive outcomes, and to determine which factors conveyed the strongest protection for families.

Select Publications

Peer Reviewed Articles

An asterisk (*) denotes a current or former graduate student advisee.


  • *Girod, S.A., Leerkes, E.M. & Zvara, B.J. (2023). Pathways linking childhood maltreatment history with lower maternal sensitivity to infant distress. Journal of Family Psychology, 37, 709-719.
  • Ferguson, A,G., Rodriguez, C.M. & Leerkes, E.M. (in press). Racial identification as a protective factor for at-risk parenting in Black parents: A longitudinal, multi-method examination. Child Maltreatment.
  • Leerkes, E.M.,* Girod, S., Buehler, C., Shriver, L. & Wideman, L. (2023). Interactive effects of maternal physiological arousal and regulation on maternal sensitivity: Replication and extension in an independent sample. Development and Psychobiology, 65, e22375.
  • *Bailes, L. & Leerkes, E.M. (2023). Transactional associations between infant negative emotionality and maternal sensitivity: Moderating role of maternal emotion dysregulation. Journal of Family Psychology, 37, 369-379.
  • *Girod, S., Buehler, C., *Bailes, L., Leerkes, E. Wideman, L. & Shriver, L. (2023). Childhood adversity predicts maternal pre-pregnancy BMI but not gestational weight gain. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 27, 641-649.


  • *Eagleton, S.G., Shriver, L.H., Buehler, C., Wideman, L. & Leerkes, E.M. (2022). Longitudinal associations among food insecurity during pregnancy, parental mental health symptoms, controlling feeding styles, and infant food responsiveness. Journal of Nutrition, 152, 2659-2668.
  • *Eagleton, S.G., Shriver, L.H., Buehler, C., Wideman, L. & Leerkes, E.M. (2022). Bidirectional associations between maternal controlling feeding and food responsiveness during infancy. Frontiers in Public Health, 10, 975067; Special Issue on Healthy Eating and Parenting Messages to Prevent Obesity.
  • Avorgbedor, F., McCoy, T.P., Wideman, L. Shriver, L., Buehler, C. & Leerkes, E. (2022). Racial disparities in neighborhood and household socioeconomic disadvantage predict postpartum weight retention. AJPM (American Journal of Preventative Medicine) Focus; Special Issues on Prevention Research for Inclusivity in People, Methods, and Outcomes, 1, e10029.
  • Buehler, C., *Girod, S., Leerkes, E., *Bailes, L., Shriver, L. & Wideman, L. (2022). Women’s social well-being during pregnancy: Adverse childhood experiences and recent life events. Women’s Health Reports, 3. DOI: 10.1089/whr.2022.0023.
  • *Zeytinoglu, S., Calkins, S. D., & Leerkes, E. M. (2022). Autonomic profiles and self-regulation outcomes in early childhood. Developmental Science, 22, e13215
  • Leerkes, E.M., *Sommers, S. & *Bailes, L. (2022). The validity of prenatal assessments of mothers’ emotional, cognitive, and physiological reactions to infant cry videos. Parenting: Science & Practice, 22, 286-314.
  • *Dunbar, A. S., Leerkes, E. M., Lozada, F. & Ahn, L.H. (2022). Mothers’ preparation for bias and responses to children’s distress predict positive adjustment among Black children: An attachment perspective. Attachment and Human Development, 24, 287-303.
  • Leerkes, E.M., *Bailes, L., *Eagleton, S. G, Buehler, C., Calkins, S.D., Shriver, L.H., & Wideman, L. (2022). Maternal sleep problems, depression, and infant negative emotionality are associated with maternal feeding to soothe in early infancy. Appetite, 176, 1-8.
  • Shriver, L.H., *Eagleton, S., *Lawless, M., Buehler, C., Wideman Gold, L., & Leerkes, E.M. (2022). Infant appetite and weight gain in early infancy: Moderating effects of controlling feeding styles. Appetite, 176, 1-11.
  • *Dunbar, A.S., *Zeytinoglu, S., Leerkes, E.M. (2022). When is suppressing Black children’s negative emotions adaptive? The role of preparation for racial bias and basal parasympathetic nervous system functioning. Research on Child and Adolescent Psychopathology, 50, 163-176.


  • Rodriguez, C.M., Granger, D. A. & Leerkes, E.M. (2021). Testosterone associations with parents’ child abuse risk and at-risk parenting: A multimethod longitudinal examination. Child Maltreatment, 26, 50-62.
  • *Bailes, L.G. & Leerkes, E.M. (2021). Maternal personality predicts insensitive parenting: Effects through causal attributions about infant distress. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 72, 10122.
  • Leerkes, E.M., *Bailes, L., *Augustine, M.A., *Norcross, P. L. & Swingler, M., (2021). A comprehensive model of women’s social cognition and responsiveness to infant crying: Integrating personality, emotion, executive function and sleep. Infant Behavior & Development, 64, ArtID: 101577.
  • *Cao, H., *Zhou, N., Su, J., & Leerkes, E.M. (2021). The etiology of maternal postpartum depressive symptoms: Childhood emotional maltreatment, couple relationship satisfaction, and genes. Journal of Family Psychology, 35, 44-56.


  • Leerkes, E.M., *Su, J., *Sommer, S. (2020). Mothers’ self-reported emotion dysregulation: A potentially valid method in the field of infant mental health. Infant Mental Health Journal, 41, 642-650.
  • Leerkes, E.M., Buehler, C., Calkins, S.D., Shriver, L.H., & Wideman Gold, L., (2020). Protocol for iGROW (Infant Growth and Development Study): Biopsychosocial predictors of childhood obesity risk at 2 years. BMC Public Health, 20, 1912.
  • *Norcross, P., *Bailes, L., & Leerkes, E.M. (2020). The effect of maternal depression on maternal sensitivity to distress and non-distress: Role of SES and race. Infant Behavior and Development, 61, 101498.
  • Leerkes, E.M., *Bailes, L. G. & *Augustine, M. (2020). The intergenerational transmission of emotion socialization. Developmental Psychology, 56, Special Issue: Parental Socialization of Emotion and Self-Regulation: Understanding Processes and Application, 390-402.

Invited Chapters

  • Leerkes, E.M., Parade, S., & *Benito-Gomez, M. (2023). Parenting during infancy and early childhood. In A.S. Morris & J. M. Smith (Eds), Handbook of Parenting: Interdisciplinary Research and Application. (pp. 191-212). Cambridge University Press.
  • Leerkes, E.M. & *Bailes, L.G. (2019). Early emotional development in the family context. In V. LoBue, K. Perez-Edgar, & K. Buss (Eds.). Handbook of Emotional Development (pp. 627-651). Springer.
  • Leerkes, E.M. & *Augustine, M. (2019). Parenting and emotions. In M. H. Bornstein (Ed)., Handbook of Parenting, 3rd ed, Vol 3. Being and Becoming a Parent (pp. 620-653). New York: Routledge.

Publicly Available Measures

We are happy to share measures we have developed with other investigators. Any of the materials available via the below links may be used at no cost. We simply ask that the original source be referenced. Given copyright laws, we provide the PubMedCentral Versions of relevant manuscripts when possible, but final citations are listed. There is no need to seek permission to use or adapt these measures.

Classes Taught

While in the role of Associate Dean for Research, I am not currently teaching courses. Below is a sample of the types of courses I typically teach.

I am accepting HDF 401 students and am happy to work with graduate students in independent study/research courses.

  • HDF 302: Infant and Child Development in the Family
  • HDF 721: Seminar in Parent Child Relations
  • HDF 667: Seminar in Infant Development
  • HDF 665 Social and Emotional Development
  • HDF 401: Special Topics.

I am always looking for motivated undergraduate students to work on my research project as independent study students. This can be done by enrolling in HDF 401: Special Problems.

You can only enroll in this course with instructor permission. This experience can be helpful if you are interested in gaining research experience prior to applying to graduate school or if you are interested in a career that involves working with parents and/or young children. This course counts toward your cognate. The tasks vary from semester to semester, so please come see me if you are interested. See a contract from a recent semester.


  • Agona Lutolli who is interested in factors that predict maternal sensitivity including maternal early adversity and social cognition and factors that enhance parenting and child outcomes among refugee families. Co-advised with Dr. Kierra Sattler.
  • Shourya Negi who is interested in identifying factors that support optimal parenting and child outcomes among low income families. Co-advised with Dr. Kierra Sattler.
  • Yu Chen who is interested in examining associations between prenatal factors (e.g., maternal stress, physical and mental health) and subsequent infant/child outcomes (e.g., stress physiology, emotion regulation, behavior problems).
  • Maha Issa who is interested in identifying factors that predict early parent-child relationship quality and the social-emotional development of infants and toddlers.


Savannah Girod, PHD (2023)

  • Dissertation: pathways by which mothers’ adverse childhood experiences and emotionally responsive parenting predict maternal sensitivity to distress: The roles of cognitive, emotional, and physiological reactions to infant crying
  • Current Employment: T32 Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for Safe and Healthy Children, Pennsylvania State University


  • Dissertation: The role of mothers’ global and parenting-specific emotionality in relation to parenting and toddlers’ emotion dysregulation
  • Current Employment: Post-doctoral scholar in Dr. Kate Humphrey’s Stress and Early Adversity Lab, Vanderbilt University

Photo: Lauren Bailes and Dr. Leerkes holding a mock hooding ceremony in Dr. Leerkes backyard during Covid


  • Dissertation: Examining Pathways Linking Maternal Depression to Maternal Sensitivity: Role of Maternal Causal Attributions
  • Current Employment: Assistant Professor in Child Development Program in the Department of Human and Environmental Sciences at Meredith College

JIN QU, PHD (2017)

  • Dissertation: Identifying Adaptive Emotion Regulation Behaviors Among Infants
  • First Post PhD Employment: Postdoctoral Fellow, Psychology Department, Penn State University
  • Current Employment: Assistant Professor of Psychology, Clarion University


  • Dissertation: Sociocultural Predictors of Parental Racial and Emotion Socialization and Relations to Child Social-Emotional Adjustment
  • First Post PhD Employment: Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of African American Studies, University of Maryland
  • Current Employment: Assistant Professor, Department of African American Studies, University of Maryland

Photo: Angel Dunbar with her committee after her dissertation defense
From left to right: Susan Calkins, Esther Leerkes, Angel Dunbar, Stephanie Coard, and Andy Supple


  • Dissertation: Links Between Maternal Education and Parenting During Children’s First Three Years: The Moderating Role of Income and Partner Status
  • Current Employment: Project Manager, Spelman College


  • Dissertation: Marital Satisfaction Across The Transition To Parenthood: A Vulnerability-Stress-Adaptation Perspective.
  • Current Employment: Research Associate Professor, Alpert School of Medicine, Brown University

Photo (from left to right): Stephanie Parade, Esther Leerkes, and Regan Burney at hooding ceremony December 2010

Regan Burney, PHD (2010)

  • Dissertation: Links Between Temperament and Coparenting: The Moderating Role Of Family Characteristics.
  • Current Employment: Project Manager, Children’s Healthy Weight Research Group, UNC-Chapel Hill, Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention

Photo (from left to right): Stephanie Parade, Esther Leerkes, and Regan Burney at hooding ceremony December 2010