Maternal Behavior and Infant Attachment

Title: Sensitivity and Attachment: A Meta-Analysis on Parental Antecedents of Infant Attachment

Authors: M. de Wolff and M. van IJzendoorn

Journal: Child Development/ Society for Research in Child Development

Year: 1997

Volume: 68, No. 4

Summary of the article: This study was a meta-analysis of 66 studies that examined the parental antecedents to attachment. The inclusion of 66 studies meant that the data from 4,176 mother/infant dyads were used. A quick introduction to the concept of attachment before summarizing the results of the article is needed. A more in-depth discussion of attachment between mother and infant and mother and child can be found in my book, Mood Matters: What Every Parent Needs to Know. In 1969, John Bowlby coined the phrase ‘attachment’ to describe the bond between an infant and a mother. Bowlby proposed that this dyadic relationship served to protect the infant and ensure the infants survival. Bowlby suggested that while both the mother and the infant were biologically preprogrammed to establish this bond, the quality of bonds differed between different dyads. Bowlby proposed that a ‘secure’ attachment between mother and infant biologically protected the infant and also was the most psychologically successful. ‘Insecure’ attachments also served to protect the infant but were not as successful with regard to psychological adjustment. Infants that were securely attached to their mother were optimally able to use their mothers as a secure base as they explored the world. Infants that were insecurely attached to mother had to make some psychological compromises to utilize a mother that was, at times, either rejecting, inconsistent, or nonresponsive. Research over the years since Bowlby’s seminal work has demonstrated links between attachment security and better overall psychological adjustment in numerous areas. A question posed by Bowlby and since then widely researched are the maternal qualities that lead to the development of a secure dyadic attachment. The current study, as aforementioned, combined the results of 66 studies in a meta-analysis. A meta-analysis allows for the congregation of results of numerous studies to calculate the effect of a variable or several variables across studies. Back in 1968, Bowlby suggested that a quality he termed ‘maternal sensitivity’ played a large part in determining the quality of the mother infant dyad. In 1978, Ainsworth conducted what is now called the Baltimore study. In this study, Ainsworth observed 26 mother-infant dyads for approximately 70 hours each within their homes over the course of the first year of the infant’s life. When the infant turned one year old, Ainsworth brought the mother-infant dyad to her laboratory and set up a situation called the Strange Situation meant to allow her to observe differences in mother-infant attachment styles. Based on this study, Ainsworth categorized the attachment behaviors that were elicited from this assessment into secure, avoidant and anxious-ambivalent. Ainsworth study suggested that maternal sensitive responsiveness predicted the differential responding of infant’s in the Strange Situation. This study spawned many replication studies as well as other studies investigating alternative maternal antecedents of attachment security. This study first organized the maternal behaviors (besides Sensitivity, Contiguity, Physical Contact, and Cooperation) described in the 66 studies into 5 categories: Synchrony, Mutuality, Positive Attitude, Emotional Support, and Stimulation. Next, the effect size of each of these constructs was calculated. Effect size are essentially the strength of the relationship between two variables and if one assumes with regard to maternal behavior that the relationship travels in the direction of maternal behavior to attachment security, then effect size is the impact of the maternal behavior on the development of attachment security. In the literature, small, medium and large effect sizes have been proposed by Cohen (1988) to be .10, .24, and .37, respectively. The researchers of this study point out that widely used medical interventions such as drugs used to reduce heart failure such as Propanolol and aspirin have effect sizes of .04 and .03, respectively. The current study found an effect size of .24 for maternal Sensitivity, suggesting a medium effect size. Synchrony and Mutuality had effect sizes of .26 and .32, respectively. Attitude and Stimulation each had effect sizes of .18 and Support had an effect size of .16.

What Does This Mean for Parents: This study is extremely important for parents due to the well-supported finding in the literature that attachment security predicts psychological adjustment and interpersonal success across the lifespan, while attachment insecurity is associated with greater levels of psychopathology. Hence, all parents should be interested in promoting attachment security in their relationship with their children. This study reviews studies that have investigated the maternal behaviors that lead to attachment security and revealed what antecedents seem to lead to this security. Maternal sensitivity within this study was defined as the mother’s ability to read the infant’s signals and then, respond contingently and appropriately. Synchrony was defined in the study as interactions that were reciprocal and mutually enjoyable. Mutuality was defined as positive exchanges where as both the mother and infant are concentrating and responding to the same thing, the mother is able to modulate her responses based on infant’s arousal and signals. Some of the behaviors included are behaviors that signal infant’s pleasure and maintenance of interaction with mother. Positive Attitude was defined as mother’s expression of positive affect towards infant. Stimulation was described as any maternal action that was directed at the baby. These findings should serve as a blue print for mothers when interacting with their infants. Mothers should attempt to be psychologically available and positive. Mother’s should monitor their infant’s signals and respond contingently in a manner that promotes positive exchanges between mother and infant. Some areas where mothers at times falter to this end are in their psychological availability. A mother that is always on the phone or always thinking or interacting with other adults is going to have a hard time monitoring the signals of her infant. It is very easy because the task of taking care of an infant is often not very cognitively challenging to try and multitask. While this may be ok, at times, and an infant must also learn to operate without the mother constantly intervening, responding sensitively to your infant’s signals both of distress and engagement is vital. The relationship between mother and infant is like a dance where each is responding to their partner’s moves to maintain a controlled and comfortable dance. While it is easy to identify the lack of maternal responsiveness as a detriment to the attachment between mother and infant, a mother can also err on the other side and be overly responsive and intrusive, not responding to the infant contingently but instead responding inconsistently with little regard to infant’s signals for engagement and disengagement. Mothers should attempt to observe their own behavior within their interactions with their infants or have a professional observe them and then evaluate how well they are doing promoting attachment security within these dyadic relationships.

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