maternal sensitivity

Maternal Sensitivity and The Healing Power of Empathy

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

August 19,2016  |

maternal deprivation

On True Love and the Perillous Errors on Maternal Deprivation

Beyond Maternal Deprivation Towards Parental Attachment

Maternal deprivation is a term used to describe a situation in which a child does not receive an adequate amount of consistent care as an infant and is believed to be one of the causes of failure to thrive, which is characterized by failure to gain weight and to achieve developmental milestones. The term “maternal deprivation” was coined by John Bowlby, who theorized that infants form one attachment that serves as a secure base from which they explore the world and serves as a model upon which they build all their future relationships.

Contributing Factors

One of the most common factors in cases of maternal deprivation is the age of the parents. Teenagers often lack the knowledge, experience, and emotional maturity required to provide a consistent level of care for infants. Unwanted pregnancies also frequently result in the lack of emotional bonding between parent and child. The absence of one parent places additional stress on the caretaking parent. Other common contributing factors are social and economic. Poverty, low levels of education, mental illness, and the lack of an adequate social support system are all factors that increase the likelihood of maternal deprivation.


The symptoms of maternal deprivation include lack of appropriate hygiene and insufficient weight gain. Physical growth is delayed and sometimes stops altogether. Physical developmental delays are often accompanied by the lack of age-appropriate responses to social interactions, such as smiling and vocal sounds expressing emotions. Children diagnosed with failure to thrive are also easily fatigued and exhibit excessive sleepiness and irritability. Later in childhood, they often have learning disabilities and behavioral problems.


One of the most common criticisms of Bowlby’s theory was that it fails to distinguish between the effects of being separated from an attachment figure and the effects of never having formed a successful attachment. Critics also point out that Bowlby’s own research samples focused on children of a specific background, such as those being raised in institutions, and that his findings were generalized to include all children. In addition, his work was funded by a post-war government concerned with employment for returning veterans whose jobs had been performed by women during the war. Others, including feminists, point out that Bowlby’s theory did not acknowledge the role of the father in the child’s development at all.

Controversies Surrounding Maternal Deprivation Theory

Harry Harlow, whose research with monkeys was instrumental in the formulation of Bowlby’s maternal deprivation theory, was harshly criticized for the cruelty of his methodology. Such experiments are being resumed by a Wisconsin University. Dr. Ned Kalen, the chairman of the Psychiatry Department, has sparked a similar debate about whether the potential benefits to humanity justifies the suffering inflicted upon animals in the name of research.

In a video, Michael Rutter , the first professor of child psychiatry in the U.K., expresses disagreement with Bowlby’s assertion that separation from the mother is the primary cause of maternal deprivation syndrome. He, and other experts have argued that while attachments formed in infancy are extremely important to a child’s development, Bowlby’s theories placed unrealistic expectations and responsibility upon mothers. Rather than forming a single all-important attachment to the mother, infants in fact are capable of forming multiple attachments.

Current Research

Despite criticism and controversy surrounding the theory, modern experts agree upon the importance of forming successful attachments in the healthy development of children. However, in light of changing social realities in which mothers play an increasingly larger role in providing financially for their children, more research is being done on the role of fathers in attachment theory. This will perhaps one day result in a the development of a “paternal deprivation theory”. While this field of research is relatively new, there is already some scientific evidence that children who experience paternal deprivation suffer many of the same physical and developmental symptoms.

Current research suggests that just as with mothers, fathers should begin developing attachments with their children as shortly after birth as possible. In one study, it was found that fathers sometimes expressed that mothers exhibited competitive behavior in the parenting arena, which adversely affected their ability to create successful attachments with their children. This phenomenon can be considered an undesirable side effect of centuries of insistence that the mother’s parenting role is far more important than the father’s.

Gender politics has always played, and will continue to play, a role in influencing research agendas as well as in the interpretation of research findings and the social implementation of those findings. As society begins to place a greater value on the importance of the father’s role in healthy child development, research will reflect those changing societal priorities. The more caring adults children are able to form secure, loving attachments with, the more likely they are to become caring, loving adults themselves.

maternal deprivation
Sister Irene at her New York Foundling Hospital in the 1890s

August 12,2016  |

Attachment Based Therapy

Psychotherapist Help For Attachment Disorder Among Children

“Young children, who for whatever reason are deprived of the continuous care and attention of a mother or a substitute-mother, are not only temporarily disturbed by such deprivation, but may in some cases suffer long-term effects which persist.”

John Bowlby’s widely accepted attachment theory, which has since been expounded upon and refined by other child psychologists, provided the foundation for the development of attachment-based therapy for children. According to this theory, there are four types of attachments. The four types are secure attachment, anxious-ambivalent attachment, anxious-avoidant attachment, and disorganized attachment.

According to a psychotherapist, children whose primary caregivers are unable to respond to their needs can develop a condition known as reactive attachment disorder (RAD). Children with an anxious-ambivalent attachment display anger or helplessness in an effort to control the situation and keep the caregiver nearby. Those with anxious-avoidant attachment exhibit behavior designed to express a desire for closeness while reducing the risk of frustration resulting from expressing needs that remain unmet. Children with disorganized attachment may try to control crying.

Every parent’s desire is for their children to form a secure attachment. However, parents often face traumatic emotional events in their own lives which affect their ability to respond to their children’s needs. For example, one study showed that 56% of mothers who had experienced the death of a parent before they finished high school had children who were later diagnosed with disorganized attachments.

Despite our human imperfections and occasional inconsistencies, children are remarkably resilient, and reactive attachment disorder (RAD), one of the most extreme forms of attachment disorder, is relatively rare. The disorder usually manifests itself in either a display of excessive attempts to gain affection even from relative strangers, or a reluctance or inability to accept affection even from familiar adults, even when in distress. However, psychotherapists have reported success in treating it.

While such a disorder is cause for concern, there is also evidence that child-parent psychotherapy (CPP) can successfully treat the disorder. In this type of therapy, psychotherapists view the relationship between the child and the caregiver as the patient, rather than just the child. In five randomized trials conducted with low income families and families with a history of depression or domestic violence, it was demonstrated that children’s attachment security was increased, while avoidance, resistance and anger were reduced. The degree of empathy that caregivers were able to display also increased.

For successful treatment of an attachment disorder, psychotherapists use a combination of group sessions, video feedback and educational and therapeutic discussions over the course of 20 weeks. Caregivers are able to observe themselves and their children’s responses, then learn and practice healthier and more beneficial ways of interacting. As an exercise in sensitivity, for the first part of each session, the caregiver remains on the floor with the infant, observing and responding only to interactions initiated by the infant. The infant is then able to experience negotiating a relationship with the caregiver through expression of its needs.

Many psychotherapists have written books on the subject of attachment disorders as well as the best way to successfully treat them. Unfortunately, many people who are not trained psychotherapists have written about it as well. While they are a cause for concern, thankfully we have come a long way from believing that attachment disorders are a sure sign of future sociopathy. That fear led to some kinds of treatments that proved to do more harm than good. For example, some therapists held the opinion that attachment disorders were rooted in rage and advocated deliberately provoking the child in order to release it.

Critics of attachment-based therapy for children argue that theories that advocate the use of aggressive psychological, or even physical, means to provoke the child towards an emotional catharsis can cause more damage. Some therapies have utilized techniques that included repeated sessions of holding the child down or forcing them to engage in prolonged eye contact. Most of these techniques have since been discredited. Anthropologist and author Rachael Stryker studied the effects of such radical attachment therapy and published her findings in The Road to Evergreen: Adoption, Attachment Therapy, and the Promise of Family.

In reality, help is available for children of adoptive parents suffering from an attachment disorder. Any parent who has suffered a loss or trauma and is concerned about how their emotions may be affecting their children, which might be any parent at any time, can benefit from attachment–based therapy. Despite the pain of loss, the loving bond of relationships, and the joy they bring, can be restored.

Attachment Based Therapy

October 19,2015  |

Child Psychologist

Child Psychologist John Bowlby Presents: The Guilt Factor

Child psychologist John Bowlby

Bowlby is known primarily for his theories on bonding and attachment. For all working mothers consumed by guilt for leaving their children in the care of others, you now have a name to attach to that guilt. Child psychiatrists often hold differing opinions on children’s emotional development, which can be confusing for parents who want to raise their children in the way that will be most beneficial to them.

Learning about the differing views of a child psychologist can be helpful, if only to discover the few things upon which they can all agree.

The Development of Attachment Theory

To arrive at a universal truth regarding human development and behavior, Bowlby felt it was necessary to utilize several fields of scientific inquiry rather than rely on existing theories of psychoanalysis alone. Psychoanalysis focused on what it regarded as the resolution of childhood fantasies, which Bowlby regarded as real life experiences. His research methods included evolutionary biology, developmental psychology, cognitive science, control systems theory and ethology. Bowlby’s interest in ethology, the study of human behavior and social organization from a biological perspective, led to the development of evolutionary psychology.

As a child psychologist, Bowlby’s theory rests on the concept of monotropy, or attachment to a single individual, which he believed served as a prototype for all future interpersonal interactions. This prototype provides a model for trustworthiness, a sense of personal value and effectiveness in achieving mutually satisfying interactions. He called the lack of such a consistent attachment “maternal deprivation” which he believed could lead to cognitive, social, and emotional difficulties, and in extreme cases, affectionless psychopathy.

To test his theory, in 1944, he conducted a study in which he interviewed 44 adolescents remanded to a juvenile detention facility for stealing. His control group consisted of 44 other youths referred for emotional problems, but who had not yet committed any crimes. The study found that

  • over half of the first group had experienced a separation from their mothers of over six months before the age of 5,
  • 32% of them displayed affectionless psychopathy
  • only 2 percent of the control group had experienced such a separation and none displayed affectionless psychopathy

The study, however, relied primarily on the memories of those interviewed and did not take a number of other variables, such as into account, such as income, education, diet, and other social influences.

Zoologist Robert Hinde conducted several experiments with rhesus monkeys in which he studied their emotional and behavioural reactions to separation from their mothers, as well as their interactions with other monkeys.

In 1959, Harry Harlow, inspired by Bowlby’s attachment theory, conducted an experiment in which a group of rhesus monkeys were bottle-fed by surrogate mothers made of wire mesh covered with terrycloth. These monkeys, in contrast with monkeys that experienced meaningful interaction with their biological mothers during feeding, demonstrated aggressive, antisocial behaviors in adulthood. The results of these studies supported Bowlby’s hypothesis that

“the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment.”

Critics of Attachment Theory—Nature Versus Nurture

Psychology researcher J.R. Harris, in her book “The Nurture Assumption”, asserts that genetics and peer interaction play a much larger role in a child’s emotional development than child psychologist Bowlby’s theory took into consideration. Using studies of twins who had been separated at birth, yet displayed remarkably similar characteristics of personality despite differences in environment, Harris demonstrated the importance of genetic predisposition as a factor in human development.

Tiffany Field, medical researcher and child psychologist, believes that Bowlby’s theory relied too heavily on behavior exhibited during stressful separation rather than on the quality of daily interactions. Like Harris, she also felt that his theory did not take into account the human ability to form multiple attachments over the course of a lifetime.

Social Context of Attachment Theory

When judging the merits of any theory regarding human development, it is important to consider the social context in which the theory gains wide acceptance. It is interesting to note that at the time that Bowlby’s theory gained wide acceptance, women were being discouraged from working in order to increase the number of jobs available for British soldiers returning home from war.

Any child psychologist agrees that it’s important for children to be able to successfully bond with others. However, human children, unlike the monkeys in the experiment, are not faced with the choice between their mothers or a lifeless wire mesh surrogate holding a bottle. Meaningful positive interaction in the form of eye contact, smiling, and physical affection can result in the child bonding with a variety of people, including fathers, grandparents, siblings, or even neighbours.

Mothers who must return to work almost immediately after giving birth rely on family, friends, or day-care providers to care for their babies. While Bowlby’s research focused on the potential harmful effects of separation, other research indicates that the more people a child feels safe and comfortable with, the less separation anxiety they will experience. Many children even develop emotional ties to a blanket or teddy bear which serves as a physical link between them and their emotional “homes”.

While there is still some disagreement about whether the modern nuclear family is the result of the industrial revolution, most people agree that it can isolate people from other family and relationships. This can result in more pressure placed on each family member, especially mothers. Isolation can also result in children learning fewer negotiation and conflict resolution skills, which are so necessary to successfully navigate within society as a whole.

Any child psychologist would agree that it is the pleasurable quality of interaction that is most conducive to children forming meaningful attachments. So rather than feeling guilty for those times when you’re too overwhelmed to radiate happiness during those interactions, view them as opportunities for your child to further develop other valuable emotional attachments.

Here you you will find more about attachment and bonding, and here are some extra sources:

Child Psychologist
Maternal Caress, Mary Cassatt, 1890–91, Credit Line Gift of Paul J. Sachs, 1916. Metropolitan Museum of Art

May 29,2015  |

Ethology and Parenting: Can Instinct be Learned?

Ethology is the study of non-human animal behavior under natural conditions with the goal of learning about more about how species develop adaptive traits in response to changing social and environmental conditions. Charles Darwin’s work was instrumental in the development of the field of ethology. His theory of evolution enabled scientists to begin viewing mankind as a part of the natural world rather than a uniquely separate species. The knowledge obtained from studying animals and their behavior has contributed a great deal to understanding human behavior. Separating the myths surrounding the concept of mother’s natural instinct from fact has been an important aspect of this research.

The concept of imprinting was first studied by Nobel prize-winning ethologists Konrad Lorenz, Nikolaas Tinburgen, and Karl Von Frisch. By studying the behavior of birds, it was concluded that baby birds emerged with the ability to bond with their mothers within a matter of hours. In the 1960’s researchers began to apply ethology to research on child development. One of the most interesting questions ethologists have attempted to answer is whether a human mother’s natural instinct is a biological reality or a social construct.

Mother’s Natural Instinct and Biology

Research methods used in ethology were used to learn more about the human mother’s natural instinct and whether the same imprinting process took place in human infants. According to ethological theory, which focuses on genetics and biology, babies are biologically prepared to behave in ways that establishes a bond with their caregivers. Ethologists believe that these behaviors are evolutionary adaptations that improve the chances for survival. The ethological school of motherhood is one that subscribes to attachment theory.

Rather than imprinting like birds, human bonding has been termed “attachment”, a term used by John Bowlby to describe the process. He agreed with the ethological view that human babies are biologically programmed to form attachments that will ensure their survival. He stressed the importance of successful bonding with the mother above all others and theorized that the quality of the mother-child bond would serve as the model for all future relationships.

While Bowlby’s research and theories proved invaluable, later research revealed that biology may play a larger role in what is considered mother’s natural instinct than he realized when forming his attachment theory. Developmental psychobiologist Myron Hofer conducted experiments that challenged Bowlby’s theory of the internal working model of attachment. When rat pups were separated from their mother, they exhibited both physiological and behavioral changes. Changes were found in heart rate and body temperature, as well as exploratory behaviors. Hofer concluded that mother-infant interactions can actually control vital regulatory functions apart from cognitive factors.

Rat pups that received high levels of maternal licking and grooming had milder responses to threat and increased exploratory behavior – effects that lasted into adulthood, and more importantly, resulted in genetic changes that were passed on to the next generation. Individual differences in maternal behavior contributed to differences in the gene expression of their offspring. These findings proved important in changing the scientific view of mother’s natural instinct.

Mother’s Natural Instinct Versus Maternal Behavior

What has historically been viewed as the human mother’s natural instinct is actually a complex set of interactions between a number of biological and environmental elements. Bowlby’s original concept of attachment security has been expanded upon to show that attachment security is influenced by both biology and maternal temperament. Studies in which children have developed emotional attachments to various objects such as a blanket or a cuddly toy with which they comfort themselves when a parent is not available have provided further evidence of the human instinct to form attachments to that which represents safety as a means of survival.

The concept of mother’s natural instinct has resulted in a belief that all women are biologically equipped to provide adequate nurturing to their offspring. Effective parenting, rather than being the result of natural instinct, is in fact a complex set of learned behaviors. Future parenting behaviors are influenced by the type of parenting an individual has received in the past. Research that identifies the types nurturing behaviors that are most beneficial to children provides women with the opportunity to learn and practice those behaviors. Positive genetic changes result from those behaviors and can then be passed to the next generation. Providing information with the potential to improve the quality of life for future generations is perhaps the most important contribution science has made to mankind.

mothers natural instinct

January 6,2014  |