The purpose of this project is to determine if maternal sensitivity to distress and maternal sensitivity to non- distress are unique constructs by: 1) examining their factor structure, 2) determining if they have different origins with an emphasis on emotion socialization in the family of origin and resulting emotion-related schema;and 3) determining if they differentially predict infant social emotional adjustment. An additional aim is to determine if the results vary between African American and European American dyads. This work is relevant to the mental health of children because maternal sensitivity to distress is a predictor of positive child outcomes, but we know little about the processes that promote sensitive behavior in response to infant crying. Identifying the processes that influence how mothers respond to their distressed infants and the origins of these processes will inform the development of screening tools to identify mothers at risk for parenting difficulties and the design of individually tailored intervention efforts to foster sensitive maternal behavior and positive social emotional functioning early in life. Two hundred and fifty primiparous mothers (150 European American, 100 African American) and their infants will participate in this study. During the prenatal period, mothers will complete questionnaires and an interview about their relationship with their own parents and will be interviewed about their responses to videotapes of distressed infants;physiological indices of arousal and emotional control will be collected during the latter. At 6 and 12 months postpartum, mothers and infants will participate in videotaped assessments of maternal sensitivity to distress and non-distress, infant temperament and emotion regulation, and attachment security. Physiological indices of mothers'and infants'emotional arousal and emotional control will be collected during these mother-infant interaction tasks. Upon completion of these tasks, mothers will watch their video footage and be interviewed about their thoughts, emotions, and goals and their infants'behavior during the tasks. Results will extend our knowledge of the processes that influence maternal sensitivity in emotionally arousing settings, a critical context for children's emotional development.

Public Health Relevance

The proposed research addresses emotional and cognitive factors relevant to sensitive maternal behavior in response to infant crying. Prior research has demonstrated that maternal sensitivity to distress facilitates optimal social-emotional functioning early in life;however, little is known about the origins of this type of parenting behavior. The examination of familial and personal characteristics that predict this type of maternal sensitivity will yield rich data that can inform the development of early intervention strategies and procedures to identify families in need of such services.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
Research Project (R01)
Project #
Application #
Study Section
Psychosocial Development, Risk and Prevention Study Section (PDRP)
Program Officer
Esposito, Layla E
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of North Carolina Greensboro
Other Health Professions
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
Zip Code
Leerkes, Esther M; Su, Jinni; Calkins, Susan D et al. (2016) Pathways by Which Mothers' Physiological Arousal and Regulation While Caregiving Predict Sensitivity to Infant Distress. J Fam Psychol :
Leerkes, E M; Su, J; Calkins, S et al. (2016) Variation in mothers' arginine vasopressin receptor 1a and dopamine receptor D4 genes predicts maternal sensitivity via social cognition. Genes Brain Behav :
Leerkes, Esther M; Supple, Andrew J; O'Brien, Marion et al. (2015) Antecedents of maternal sensitivity during distressing tasks: integrating attachment, social information processing, and psychobiological perspectives. Child Dev 86:94-111
Haltigan, John D; Leerkes, Esther M; Supple, Andrew J et al. (2014) Infant negative affect and maternal interactive behavior during the still-face procedure: the moderating role of adult attachment states of mind. Attach Hum Dev 16:149-73
Haltigan, John D; Leerkes, Esther M; Wong, Maria S et al. (2014) Adult attachment states of mind: measurement invariance across ethnicity and associations with maternal sensitivity. Child Dev 85:1019-35
Leerkes, Esther M; Supple, Andrew J; Gudmunson, Jessica A (2014) Ethnic Differences in Women's Emotional Reactions to Parental Non-Supportive Emotion Socialization. Marriage Fam Rev 50:435-446
Mathews, Meagan E; Leerkes, Esther M; Lovelady, Cheryl A et al. (2014) Psychosocial predictors of primiparous breastfeeding initiation and duration. J Hum Lact 30:480-7
Haltigan, John D; Leerkes, Esther M; Burney, Regan V et al. (2012) The Infant Crying Questionnaire: initial factor structure and validation. Infant Behav Dev 35:876-83