Title

Differentiating Maternal Sensitivity to Infant Distress and Non-Distress

Document Type

Article

Publication Date

6-14-2012

Abstract

Drawing from a domain specificity perspective, we assert that maternal sensitivity to infant distress cues is distinct from maternal sensitivity to non-distress cues. We review evidence from prior research demonstrating that the two constructs have more unshared than shared variance and that sensitivity to infant distress is a unique predictor of infants' early emotional well-being when both types of sensitivity are examined as simultaneous predictors. In addition, we present new evidence to test the hypothesis that maternal sensitivity to infant distress and non-distress have different origins. We draw on data from a subset of mothers and infants who participated in Phase I of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care (Study 1) and from 101 mother–infant dyads who participated in a longitudinal study of the origins of maternal sensitivity (Study 2). In both studies, maternal sensitivity to distress and non-distress were rated when infants were six months old. In both studies, socio-demographic risk (i.e., young, unmarried, low income mothers) was a stronger predictor of sensitivity to non-distress than of sensitivity to distress. In Study 2, mothers' emotional and cognitive responses to videotapes of crying infants during the prenatal period predicted maternal sensitivity during tasks designed to elicit infant fear and frustration but were unrelated to maternal sensitivity in a non-arousing free play context. Maternal sensitivity during infancy can be further divided into specific sub-types that have unique origins and unique effects on subsequent child well-being. Methodological, theoretical, and applied implications of such an approach are discussed.