26, No. 4, Aug. 17, 2006
How mothers respond to baby’s
Phyllis Picklesimer, ACES Media Communications Specialist
A mother’s attentiveness to her baby’s distress, especially in the
first year, is more important to his secure attachment than positive feedback
when he’s happy and content, concludes a UI study published in the June
issue of the Journal of Family Psychology.
“Unfortunately, sometimes it’s difficult for parents to deal with
their child’s distress,” said Nancy McElwain, a UI professor of human
and community development. “A mother may become anxious when her baby is
really unhappy and try to comfort him by saying, ‘Oh, don’t cry,
don’t cry.’ But it’s OK to cry.
“If the new mother wasn’t comforted very well by her own mother when
she was a child, she may need help learning to console her own infant,” McElwain
In the study, McElwain coded maternal sensitivity to distress and non-distress
in 357 mothers and their babies at six and 15 months of age, then assessed attachment
security in the babies at 15 months. Infant difficult temperament was also used
as a predictor and found not to be a factor. The data came from the National
Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and
Youth Development, which involved more than 1,300 families.
“A mother’s sensitivity to her baby’s distress at six months
was a significant predictor of the baby’s attachment security at 15 months,
but sensitivity during times of nondistress was not. It’s important that
babies become securely attached to their caregivers because it’s the foundation
for future healthy child development,” she said.
Mothers who realize they are uncomfortable with their baby’s distress should
find ways to cope with those feelings so they can change their behavior, she
“Ideally, you want to show your child through your facial expression and
your tone of voice that you understand how she feels and that you empathize with
her,” McElwain said. “Respond in a timely way to your infant’s
cues, and let your interactions with your infant be driven by the baby’s
agenda, not your agenda.”
Recent research has shown that children respond more positively to mothers who
are able to think of their infant as a person who has needs, desires, intentions,
and a mental world, McElwain said.
“Try to see things from the infant’s point of view as much as possible.
When mothers talk to their babies, even at six months, about the baby’s
mental state and how the baby is feeling, infants respond to that verbalization,” she
But don’t obsess over your baby’s distress. “Sensitivity doesn’t
necessarily mean responding to your baby every minute of the day. It does mean
thinking about why the baby is upset,” McElwain said.
Being attuned to your baby’s emotional life should result in a securely
attached toddler who seeks out his caregiver when he needs to be comforted and
is able to explore his environment relatively freely when he isn’t stressed,
said the researcher.
Cathryn Booth-LaForce of the University of Washington is co-author of the study.
Funding was provided by NICHD.