Previous research has revealed that mothers who respond quickly and warmly to their babies’ cries have infants with better emotional development, compared with mothers who are less sensitive. Now, a new study suggests that moms with positive childhood caregiver experiences – or those who have come to terms with negative experiences – respond better to their own babies’ cries.

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Mothers who have had positive experiences in their own childhood with caregivers are more likely to respond sensitively to their own babies’ cries, says the new study.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and colleagues from Fuller Theological Seminary and Hebrew University of Jerusalem collaborated on the study, which is published in the journal Child Development.

Other recent studies have focused on the importance of parental attentiveness to babies. Medical News Today recently reported on one that suggested how parents react to their infants’ babbling could influence their language development.

“Responding sensitively to infant crying is a difficult yet important task,” says lead author Prof. Esther M. Leerkes, from the University of North Carolina.

“Some mothers may need help controlling their own distress and interpreting babies’ crying as an attempt to communicate need or discomfort,” she adds.

In light of this importance, Prof. Leerkes and colleagues wanted to investigate which characteristics differed between mothers who sensitively respond to their babies’ cries and mothers who are less sensitive.

They followed 259 first-time mothers – who came from a range of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds – from pregnancy until their babies were 6 months of age. Additionally, the mothers completed personality and emotional characteristic questionnaires, and the researchers interviewed them about their childhood experiences with their parents or caregivers.

As the expectant mothers viewed short videos of four crying babies, the team measured their skin conductance – how much sweat was on their skin in response to stress – and heart rate in order to assess their physiological reactions to the crying. Next, the mothers answered questions that revealed how they thought and felt about the crying.

Results showed that the mothers who had experienced depression or who had difficulty controlling their emotions focused on themselves rather than prioritizing the needs of the crying babies.

In detail, the mothers whose physiological responses indicated their physical stress was poorly controlled responded more negatively to the videos and perceived the crying to be either a nuisance or a manipulation. Additionally, these mothers were less sensitive to their own infants’ cries when the babies were 6 months old.

Prof. Leerkes says such mothers may need help, adding that “home visiting programs or parenting classes that help parents become more aware of stress and teach ways to reduce it, as well as individualized parent education efforts, may help build these skills.”

The study found that race did not predict how mothers thought, felt or behaved in response to infant crying, which Prof. Leerkes says “adds to evidence supporting the universality of the processes that promote mothers’ sensitivity to distress.”

In July of this year, Medical News Today reported on a study that suggested mothers transfer fear to their babies through odors.