Is Maternal Behavior in the Strange Situation Related to Infant Attachment?

By Kennedy, Janice H. | Journal of Early Childhood and Infant Psychology, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview

Is Maternal Behavior in the Strange Situation Related to Infant Attachment?


Kennedy, Janice H., Journal of Early Childhood and Infant Psychology


In Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, and Wall's (1978) seminal examination of maternal factors that shape the development of the caregiver-infant attachment relationship in a sample of low-risk mothers in the infant's first year, several maternal behaviors were found to predict attachment relationship quality, most notably maternal sensitivity, responsiveness, and appropriately stimulating play. Maternal sensitivity includes perceiving that a signal has occurred, interpreting it accurately, responding promptly, and responding appropriately (Ainsworth, Bell, & Stayton, 1974). Maternal sensitivity to infant signals appears to be the most salient factor related to quality of mother-infant attachment (De Wolff & van IJzendoorn, 1997), and low maternal sensitivity has been reported in numerous studies of high-risk families. Maternal insensitivity has been related to depression (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development [NICHD] Early Child Care Research Network, 1999), high incidence of abuse or neglect (Carlson, Cicchetti, Barnett, & Braunwald, 1989; Lyons-Ruth, Repacholi, McLeod, & Silva, 1992), frightening or frightened behavior of the parent (Hesse & Main, 2006), inconsistent care (Bosquet & Egeland, 2001), and a subjective feeling of helplessness in mothers (Spangler & Grossman, 1999).

Children whose mothers have shown low sensitivity in parent-child interactions demonstrate poor compliance to maternal requests as toddlers (Ainsworth et al., 1974), elevated instances of psychopathology at four years (Bohlin & Hagerskull, 2000), and low school readiness and verbal comprehension in preschool (Hoffman, Crnic, & Baker, 2006). Although recent studies of maternal sensitivity (e.g., Cowan, 1997; De Wolff & van IJzendoorn, 1997; Juffer, van IJzendoorn, & Bakermans-Kranenburg, 1997; van den Boom, 1997) have generally reported less predictability for maternal sensitivity than Ainsworth originally posited for her Baltimore sample, the construct remains the most important predictor of attachment quality within the family (De Wolff & van IJzendoorn; Koren-Karie, Oppenheim, Doley, Sher, & Etzion-Carasso, 2002).

Some researchers (e.g., Thompson, 1997) have pondered why sensitive responsiveness contributes to secure attachment and how maternal sensitivity predicts later working models of self and relationships. Promptness, consistency, and appropriateness of maternal response are generally the main constituents that are used to define sensitivity (van den Boom, 1997). However, maternal sensitivity is more than a stable, maternal trait. Sroufe and Sampson (2000) point out that Ainsworth's sensitivity measures were not just the frequency of discrete maternal behaviors, but rather the interplay of behavioral patterning, surrounding context, and meaning that are necessary to understand sensitivity. They point out that sensitivity must be observed at the level of the relationship. Of course, maternal behavior is not independent of infant behavior. It is easier to be sensitive to a secure infant who gives clear signals for proximity and comfort than to an avoidant infant (who may provide few signals), or to a resistant infant (who may reject mother's offers of comfort). However, sensitivity to a particular infant's signals is a multidimensional construct that incorporates the mother's detection and interpretation of her child's signals, as well as the appropriateness and timing of her response. Ainsworth et al. (1974) believed that a mother's ability to see things from the child's point of view was necessary for serving as a secure base for exploration and the development of secure attachment. This seems to reflect the early, developing maternal side of the goal-corrected partnership that Bowlby (1969/1982) describes as unfolding in the infant's second year.

A number of studies following Ainsworth and her colleagues (1978) have examined maternal sensitivity at home (e.

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