A study published recently in the Journal of Child Development found that maternal sensitivity to a child’s needs in their early years has lasting effects on academic performance, success and social relationships well into early adulthood.
For their research, Dr. K. Lee Raby, a psychologist at Delaware University, and his colleagues used data which the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation collected from following children from birth until age 32.
The Minnesota Department of Health recruited the 200 study participants when their mothers received prenatal services. Thus, all participants started life living below the poverty line. Forty-eight percent of the mothers were teenagers when they gave birth, 62% were single, and 42% had not completed high school.
Attentive Mothers Respond to Children’s Basic Needs
The first observations occurred in infancy, with video-taped interactions between the mothers and their babies. At ages 3 months and 6 months, the researchers noted whether mothers were able to accurately perceive and respond to their infants’ needs while feeding and playing at home.
At ages 24 months and 48 months, the researchers invited the toddlers and preschoolers, along with their mothers, into the lab to complete a series of tasks with escalating difficulty. The researchers instructed the mothers only to step in when the child needed help.
Once again, the researchers noted how effectively the mothers responded to their children and whether or not they were able to effectively communicate in a way that helped their children complete each task. These early mother-child interactions provided the researchers with baseline data for how sensitive each child’s caregiving relationship was with his or her mother.
Securely Bonded Infants Become Successful Adolescents and Adults
As the children entered their school years, the researchers tracked both objective academic measures and teachers’ subjective measures of children’s social competency. Given a description of a prototypically socially competent child at each of grades 1, 2, 3, 6, and age 16, teachers ranked children according to how well they fit the description, including leadership abilities, sociability, and acceptance among peers. Both academic success and social competence correlated with maternal sensitivity, and the correlation remained constant as children progressed through the grades.
Furthermore, the effects of early caregiving followed participants well into adulthood. Sensitive parenting correlated with higher levels of completed education and “healthier” romantic relationships at age 32.
Dr. Raby explained to Decoded Parenting that “Competence in adult romantic relationships was defined as forming and maintaining high-quality relationships that contribute to a positive sense of self.”
Specifically, researchers asked participants about the number of people they had dated, the length of relationships, the level of domestic violence in relationships and the intentionality behind their relationships.
Additional Environmental and Personality Traits Effect Adult Success
While maternal sensitivity does have “enduring predictive effects” on success well into adulthood, Dr. Raby cautions that it is just one variable. Other factors with strong correlations to adult success include gender, ethnicity, maternal education, and socioeconomics.
In fact, once one takes these confounding variables into consideration, gender and maternal education more significantly affect the social competence effect than any other factors. There can also be transactional effects – that is a child’s personality can provoke responses from the environment, which in turn has an effect on the child.
Dr. Raby explained that, “There are two ways of thinking about the findings and both are important. The first is the glass half full perspective: children who experienced more sensitive early caregiving are more likely to succeed in relationships and academics later in life.”
All of the children in the study were born into difficult, high poverty situations. In spite of the hand they were dealt, sensitive early care provided them with resilience to grow socially and academically. He continued, “Of course, the opposite is also true (i.e. the glass half empty perspective). Experiencing insensitive care also had lasting negative consequences for children’s later performance in school and their later relationships.”
Dr. Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist specializing in childhood trauma, explains why attachment to a primary caregiver is the foundation for development in a series of talks on “Six Core Strengths for Healthy Child Development.”
Lessen Negative Effects of Insensitive Care with Early Intervention
Although the negative effects of insensitive care may be mitigated by other variables in the child’s life, the study shows the importance of quality early caregiving.
Dr. Raby recommends training programs for expectant parents. “I currently am working with Dr. Mary Dozier at the University of Delaware, and she—along with various colleagues—has developed a home-visiting program for higher-risk mothers that helps them provide more sensitive care for their children. Research has shown this program to be effective at boosting mothers’ sensitivity, which results in host of beneficial effects on their children’s development.”
© Copyright 2015 Nicole Fravel, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Parenting