URBANA, Ill. -- Just when it is highly difficult for a stressed mother to offer the most support, when a baby is wailing inconsolably, is when the infant needs loving attention the most-an approach said to pay dividends for later security.
URBANA, Ill., July 28 -- Just when it is highly difficult for a stressed mother to offer the most support, when a baby is wailing inconsolably, is when an infant needs loving attention the most.
This approach especially in the first year of life pays dividends for later security, according to data from the large National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care.
That study shows that the mother's sensitivity to her child's needs is associated significantly with the chances forming a secure attachment to the mother, Nancy McElwain, Ph.D., of the University of Illinois here, and Cathryn Booth-LaForce, Ph.D., of the University of Washington in Seattle, reported in the August issue of the Journal of Family Psychology.
On the other hand, sensitivity to a contented child appears to play no part in forming the mother-child attachment, they said.
"Unfortunately, sometimes it's difficult for parents to deal with their child's distress," Dr. McElwain said. "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 okay to cry."
The longitudinal NICHD study includes 1,364 mother-child pairs who were observed during play sessions when the children were six months old and again at 15 months. In most of those sessions, the children were contented and there was no assessment of how the mothers reacted to distress.
However, 357 mother-child pairs did have some distress during the six-month session and 230 had distress during the 15-month session, the researchers said. Those cases were included in the data analysis for this substudy, which measured maternal sensitivity to both distress and non-distress, as well as infant attachment at 15 months and infant temperament.
In a logistic regression analysis using several models, the researchers found, only maternal sensitivity to the child's distress at age six months was significantly associated with secure mother-child attachment at 15 months.
In a model including both sensitivity to distress and non-distress, mothers who paid attention to the unhappy baby were significantly more likely to have a secure attachment relationship at 15 months. The odds ratio was 1.64, with a 95% confidence interval from 1.13 to 2.37.
On the other hand, there was no association between either measure at 15 months and attachment, the researchers said.
Also, infant temperament -- whether the baby was classified as "difficult" -- appeared to play no role, although the researchers said the conclusion is tentative, because the classification was based on the mothers' assessment.
"The first year of life is so important and we can see from this study that the way mothers and caregivers respond to a baby's distress is a very important factor in the child's healthy development," Dr. McElwain said. "It's important that babies become securely attached to their caregivers because it's the foundation for future healthy child development."
Mothers who realize they are uncomfortable with their baby's distress should find try to change, she said. "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," Dr. 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," she added. "Try to see things from the infant's point of view as much as possible."
But the mother shouldn't be obsessed. "Sensitivity doesn't necessarily mean responding to your baby every minute of the day," Dr. McElwain said. "It does mean thinking about why the baby is upset."