Distressed by your babys distress? How you respond matters

Urbana -- A mother's attentiveness to her baby's distress, especially in the first year, is more important to his secure attachment than lots of positive feedback when he's happy and content, concludes a University of Illinois study published in the June issue of the Journal of Family Psychology.

"Unfortunately, sometimes it's difficult for parents to deal with their child's distress," said Nancy McElwain, a U of I assistant professor of human and community development. "A mother may become anxious when her baby is really unhappy and try to comfort him by saying, 'Oh, don't cry, don't cry.' But it's okay to cry.

"If the new mother wasn't comforted very well by her own mother when she was a child, she may need help learning to console her own infant," the researcher said.

In the study, McElwain coded maternal sensitivity to distress and nondistress in 357 mothers and their babies at six and 15 months, then assessed attachment security in the babies at 15 months. Infant difficult temperament was also used as a predictor and found not to be a factor. The data came from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, which involved more than 1,300 families.

"A mother's sensitivity to her baby's distress at six months was a significant predictor of the baby's attachment security at 15 months, but sensitivity during times of nondistress was not. It's important that babies become securely attached to their caregivers because it's the foundation for future healthy child development," she said.

Mothers who realize they are uncomfortable with their baby's distress should find ways to compensate or cope with those feelings so they can change their behavior, she said.

What does a sensitive response to distress look like? "Ideally, you want to show your child through your facial expression and your tone of voice that you understand how she feels an

Contact: Phyllis Picklesimer
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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