Friday, August 19, 2011

Maternal Attachment: Characteristics of the Mother

        As was explained in the previous post, Mary Ainsworth looked at four characteristics, each along a continuum when describing maternal attachment: sensitivity vs. insensitivity to baby's signals, cooperation vs. interference with baby's environment, acceptance vs. rejection of infant's needs, and physical and psychological availability.    What do these descriptions mean, and where does your care-giving style fall along these scales?

Sensitivity vs. Insensitivity to Baby's Signals
      The first aspect of this characteristic is to be able to interpret your child's signals.  Are you aware of your child's attempts to communicate with you, and can you determine his meaning?  If so, do you respond to meet his requests promptly?
      A highly sensitive mother is one that is very aware of her child's communications and is able to determine her child's needs without projecting her own perception or bias in her child's request.  For example, if the mother determines that her child wants to play with a toy, she would be inserting her own bias into his request if she quickly handed him the nearest stuffed animal instead of the set of blocks tucked away in the closet that the child was requesting.  Additionally, the mother must be able to empathize with her child so that she can gain a greater understanding of the child's needs. 
      An example of being sensitive to her child's needs is feeding on demand.  When the child indicates that she is hungry, the mother quickly feeds the child, whatever the hour or however soon after the previous feeding.  In contrast, feeding on a strict schedule is insensitive to a child's needs.

Cooperation vs. Interference with Baby's Environment
 This characteristic analyzes to what extent the mother's actions disrupt the child's activity or current interest.  This can come in the form of physical disruption (constant moving of the child) or a less physical form in which the mother is constantly instructing or dictating the child's actions.
  Mothers that are highly disruptive of a child's environment do not respect the actions or desires of the child; instead, they tend to view the child as an extension of themselves- forcing the child to play when the mother wants to play or sleep when the mother wants to sleep.
  In contrast, a cooperating mother guides her child using his cues.  The mother's decisions take the child's into account, and, if a change in activity is necessary, she waits for an appropriate pause in the activity. These shifts are gradual, respecting the child's current interest.
  Another difference in these styles is seen in the types of play.  The cooperative mother is more spontaneous in play, basing her actions on the child's current mood and desires.  In contrast, the interfering mother has a pre-determined play plan or rules that she will impose on the child, despite the child's current wants.

Physical and Psychological Availability
      This scale primarily  rates the mother's availability and accessibility to her child.  Ainsworth acknowledges that a mother cannot give her 100% attention to her child at all times (there's still cooking, cleaning, husbands, other children, work, etc!) But, the mother is still alert to the child's signals and can respond when needed.
      It is within this scale that instances of a mother suffering from PPD or another psychological disorder become most evident.  In order to cope with her own needs, the mother may find it necessary to tune out those of her child's.  Other less available mothers are simply more interested in their own lives than those of their child. They have their own goals, personal or professional, that they chose to attend to over the needs of child.
      After an extended period of being with an unresponsive mother, the child will most likely essentially stop trying to get his mother's attention.  In these cases, it may not seem as though the mother is available and responding to the child.  However, long periods of silence or lack of interest from the child must be taken into account when judging the mother's accessibility.

Acceptance vs. Rejection of Baby's Needs
      This characteristic looks at how the mother is coping with the positive and negative emotions that dealing with a particular child brings.  There are obvious joys and frustrations of parenthood- love, tenderness, but also times of irritation and exasperation. The accepting mother is loving and accepting towards the child, even in difficult moments.  Of course, even the accepting mother has occasional outbursts and periods of frustration, but she does not target these short-lived emotions at the child.  In contrast, the rejecting mother is overcome with negative emotions and often takes them out on the child, most often, as the name implies, in the form of rejection.

Ainsworth, Mary. (1969). From Mimeograph. Retrieved from 

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