Meanings of Words, Psychology

Maternal Sensitivity and The Healing Power of Empathy

maternal sensitivity

Tests To Measure Maternal Sensitivity

Maternal sensitivity is defined as a mother’s ability to perceive, successfully translate, and appropriately respond to her infant’s behavioral cues. Psychologists believe that children of mothers with a high level of maternal sensitivity tend to be healthier and display higher levels of social and cognitive ability than children of mothers with low levels of maternal sensitivity. Psychologists have developed a number of tests to determine maternal sensitivity levels.

One of those tests, the Ainsworth Maternal Sesitivity Scale the was developed by developmental psychologist Mary D. Salter Ainsworth., a developmental psychologist and contemporary of John Bowlby. In Ainsworth’s view, the ability to correctly interpret an infants non-verbal communication depends upon three factors: 1. Awareness 2.Freedom from distortion and 3.Empathy.

Awareness in terms of maternal sensitivity includes a level of physical and emotional accessibility that enables the mother to respond promptly to the baby’s signals. Distortions can be caused by defense mechanisms such as projection or denial, as in the case of a mother who puts her child down for a nap because she herself is tired. Empathy allows the mother to imagine herself in the infant’s helpless position and quickly alleviate fear and discomfort when necessary. This scale rates a mother’s maternity sensitivity level on a scale of 1 through 9, with 9 being the highest level, and 1 being the lowest.

The Maternal Behaviour Q-Sort to measure maternal sensitivity was developed by David Pederson, Greg Moran and Sandi Bento to measure the quality of interactions between mothers and children. The standard test includes a 90 item card set that helps define the mother’s interactions relative to a sensitivity prototype for each type of interaction, prototypes which the test itself was instrumental in developing. The Pederson and Moran Sensitivity Q-Sort also uses a set of descriptive cards that observers use to isolate and accurately describe specific maternal behaviors, or lack of behaviors, exhibited during an observation period. These behaviors can be as minute as a fleeting smile, and for that reason, observations of these recorded sessions are called “micro-analyzation”.

The use of these tests that associate maternal responsiveness with maternal sensitivity has resulted in gaining many insights into parenting practices. For example, it was discovered that in Western cultures, mothers responded to only 30–50% of their infants’ babbling and 50–75% of their expressions of distress. This raises the question of what amount of parental responsiveness is optimal. Research has shown that evidence of maternal unresponsiveness at ages 3 and 9 months is a predictor of insecure attachment by 12 months, aggressive behavior displayed by age 3 and acting out or externalization of internal difficulties by age 10.

A potential consequence of over-responsiveness is interference with the development of self-sufficiency. Another important factor is consistency in response. Whatever the type of consistent response, the child may be adversely affected by frequent unpredictable deviations from it. However, a study judged mothers who were either more or less contingent than average to be less sensitive. The reason for that was that all human interactions are imperfect, and no one is capable of responding consistently in the same manner to the same stimulus in every situation.

Part of a child’s healthy development is learning to adapt to slight changes. In fact, researchers hypothesize that the infant’s ability to detect such imperfect differences establishes the basis for distinguishing itself as a separate identity. Rather than mothers remaining in a fixed state of sensitivity, their communication with infants is a series of interactive “matches” and “mismatches” and the relationship in an almost constant state of small ruptures and repairs. It is the inability to repair these small ruptures over time that results in negative effects rather than a sense of mastery and self-autonomy. These tests have provided valuable information that have helped psychologists develop effective intervention strategies for parents and children at risk.

The effectiveness of these intervention strategies was demonstrated by a study in the Netherlands in which 100 6-month-old infants who displayed high levels of irritability shortly after birth were deemed to be at risk of developing insecure attachment. Fifty of the mothers participated in 3 separate 2- hour intervention sessions in which they were encouraged to further develop their maternal sensitivity by imitating infant behaviors and responsively soothing infant crying. Mother-infant interaction, and levels of both infant exploration and attachment security were re-assessed at three months. Those mothers were found to be more responsive and their infants more sociable. Another follow-up three months later determined that 62% of the infants whose mothers had received the intervention were more securely attached, compared to only 28% of the control group that had not received intervention.

Perhaps one day it will be possible to administer similar maternal sensitivity, and paternal sensitivity, tests to prospective parents and provide similar interventions before the birth of their child. However, it might be necessary to first administer a dose of oxytocin to simulate the chemical assistance that the human body provides for new parents about to embark on the often difficult but always rewarding journey of learning that is parenthood.

maternal sensitivity
Mother Roulin with Her Baby, 1888, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
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