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Predictors of Maternal Sensitivity to Infant Distress

A mother’s emotional goals predicted her sensitivity to infant distress more so than her own emotional reaction. In addition, her prenatal ability to detect an unfamiliar infant’s distress was associated with more maternal sensitivity with her own infant.

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  • N: 101
  • Subject Ages: Mothers ages 15-37, mean maternal age 27.79 years
  • Location: United States
  • SES: $6,000-$190,000 annual income, mean $65,000
  • Eligibility: Primiparous mothers
  • Additional:
    • Education ranged from less than a high school diploma to graduate degrees
    • 72% European American, 25% African American, 2% Asian American, 1% Latin American
    • 11 mothers were single mothers with no father involvement


  1. Maternal detection of infant distress, empathy, infant-oriented emotion goals and emotion efficacy will correlate positively with maternal sensitivity, whereas negative maternal emotions will correlate negatively with maternal sensitivity.
  2. Observed infant distress will interact with mothers’ emotional and cognitive responses to infant distress to predict sensitivity during the arousing tasks.

Variables Measured, Instruments Used

  • Depressive symptoms, prenatal and postnatal - the Epidemiologic Studies-Depression Scale (CES-D; Radloff, 1977)
  • Distress detection - interviews
  • Mother emotions - interview
  • Infant-oriented emotion goals - interview
  • Efficacy - questionnaire was modeled after Teti & Gelfand’s (1991) Maternal Self-Efficacy Scale, which has predicted sensitive maternal behavior in a number of studies (Hess, Teti & Hussey-Gardner, 2004; Teti & Gelfand)
  • Behavioral coding -
    • the Observer 5.0 (Noldus Information Technology, Wageningen, Netherlands)
    • emotion-eliciting tasks adapted from Braungart-Rieker & Stifter (1996)
    • maternal sensitivity: observed




  1. Mothers' emotional and cognitive responses to infant distress predicted significant variation in maternal sensitivity to distress independently of one another and in conjunction with observed infant distress.
  2. Mothers' emotional goals were the most consistent predictors of sensitivity to distress, followed by their emotional reactions to distress.
  3. Mothers' prenatal negative emotions in response to crying were related to sensitivity to distress cues.
  4. Both prenatal and postnatal negative emotions moderated the link between observed infant distress and total sensitivity.
  5. Postnatal empathy, but not prenatal empathy, was positively associated with sensitivity to distress.
  6. Accurate detection of the unfamiliar infants’ distress during the prenatal period was positively related to sensitivity to distress.
  7. Efficacy was the only predictor that was unrelated to sensitivity as a main effect or in conjunction with infant temperament.


  • The majority of the participants in this study were high-functioning, non-minority adults and all were first-time mothers.
  • The duration of infant distress was relatively brief, and some infants did not become distressed.
  • Due to small sample size, infant-oriented and mother-oriented goals were combined even though they did not correlate significantly.