Sensitive Mothering

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In this essay I will attempt to discuss the concept of ‘sensitive mothering' as being vital to the social and emotional development of a child. In doing so I will discuss various developmental theories to a child's development and discuss the concepts of 'attachment theory' encompassing 'internal working model' and 'quality attachment' of John Bowlby. I shall also discuss the eight stages contemplated in Erikson's psychosocial development and the impact attachment has on the social and emotional development of an individual.

Ainsworth (1969) believed that ‘sensitive mothering’ is an important element in the development of a satisfactory mother-baby attachment (MCI Module, undated). The term ‘sensitive mothering’ refers to someone who is responsive emotionally and physically available for her child and is cooperative with her/him, someone who provides the child a ‘secure base’ (Ainsworth 1969) to explore the world. (MCI Module, undated). Mothers who were highly responsive and available to their children were more likely to have infants who developed more harmonious relationships with their mothers. Mothers who were sensitive, their children were more sympathetic, more compliant with adults and less likely to develop behavioural problems. Sensitive mothering in the first year of life is thought to predict the quality of the mother-infant attachment. On the other hand, mothers who were insensitive, rejecting, under involved were more likely to have infants who develop an insecure bond. The mother-infant relationship is thought to set the tone for all future relationships.

The most famous attachment theorist was John Bowlby. He argued, “The need for attachment was an instinctive biological need and that mother-love in infancy and childhood was as important for mental health as are vitamins and protein for physical health” (Macleod-Brudenell & Kay, 2008, p.99). According to Bowlby, many aspects of our personality are formed during our infant and adult years where we experience a constant round of close relationships with parents, family and friends. The kind of adult we become is not only a product of our biological nature, but also the results of interactions we have with the people around us. The core principle behind Bowlby’s theory was that the formation of a stable, healthy attachment with a caregiver in the early years of life is the key for an infant’s future emotional, social and cognitive development. He explained that this primary attachment relationship develops because infants need a mechanism to ensure survival. Attachment is therefore an adaptive behaviour that ensures the infant receives food, security and a safe base from which to explore the world. His research with juvenile offenders found that 40% of them had been separated for a prolonged period from their mothers in the early years of their lives therefore a stable attachment bond was not formed. Bowlby (1969) also proposed that children who grew up in orphanages were unable to love because they had not had the opportunity to form a solid attachment to a mother –figure early in life. His work led him to suggest that this bonding process begins at birth and is well under way by about 6 months of age. During this time, infants typically attach themselves to their primary caregiver. From about 7 to 9 months, a young child separated from an attachment figure will be quite upset and engage in frequent crying. Fear of strangers is another common behaviour during this period. From around 2 years of age, they begin to develop relationships with the attached person that are more complex and start to recognize the goals and plans of the attached adults.

Bowlby (in Barnes 1995) described the attachment bond as ‘monotropic’, that is, it is established between an infant and one other person. Whilst other relationships are formed these are qualitatively different from the primary attachment relationship and do not have the same impact on later emotional...
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