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Parent Sci Pract. 2010 Jul 1;10(3):219-239.

Predictors of Maternal Sensitivity to Infant Distress.

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  • 1Esther M. Leerkes, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, PO Box 26170, Greensboro, NC 27402-6170,



The present study was designed to examine the extent to which mothers' emotional (i.e., empathy, negative emotions) and cognitive (i.e., accurate detection of distress, goals about infant crying, and emotion efficacy) responses to infant distress are related to maternal sensitivity in tasks designed to elicit infant distress. Mothers' emotional and cognitive responses to distress were assessed both prenatally in response to unfamiliar infants and postnatally in response to own infant. The extent to which prenatal and postnatal measures correlated with one another and with sensitivity to distress was examined.


One-hundred and one mothers were interviewed prenatally about their responses to videotapes of crying infants, then videotaped interacting with their own infants at 6-months postpartum in two emotionally arousing tasks during which maternal sensitivity and infant distress were rated, and participated in a video-recall interview about their thoughts and feelings during the emotionally arousing tasks.


Mothers' prenatal and postnatal goals in relation to infant distress and emotional reactions to infant distress were the most consistent predictors of sensitivity, but prenatal accurate detection of infant distress also predicted sensitivity. Furthermore, mothers' goals, emotional reactions to crying, and accurate distress detection buffered maternal sensitivity from the negative effect of observed infant distress. That is, infant distress was less strongly negatively associated with sensitivity when mothers had more infant-oriented goals, reported fewer negative emotions in response to infant crying, or were skilled at detecting infant distress.


Assessing mothers' emotional and cognitive responses to infant distress provides insights into the origins of sensitivity to infant distress. Methodological issues relevant to assessing mothers' emotional and cognitive responses to infant distress are raised.

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