Infants whose mothers respond quickly, consistently, and warmly when they cry have healthier emotional development than infants whose mothers are less sensitive to their cries. A new study has found that mothers whose childhood experiences with caregivers was positive and those who have come to terms with negative experiences are more infant-oriented when they see videos of babies crying and respond more sensitively to their own babies’ cries.

The study, by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, appearing in the journal Child Development, sought to identify characteristics that differentiate mothers who behave sensitively when their infants cry and mothers who don’t.

Esther M. Leerkes, professor of human development and family studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who led the study, notes, “Responding sensitively to infant crying is a difficult yet important task. Some mothers may need help controlling their own distress and interpreting babies’ crying as an attempt to communicate need or discomfort. 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 researchers observed 259 first-time mothers who were followed from pregnancy until their babies were 6 months old. Expectant mothers filled out questionnaires about their personalities and emotional characteristics, and they were interviewed about their childhood experiences with their parents or caregivers, including how those experiences affected them over time. Next, the expectant mothers watched short videos of four crying babies. Their skin conductance and heart rate were measured while they watched to determine how their bodies reacted physiologically when exposed to the crying.

After watching the videos, the mothers answered questions to determine how they thought and felt about the crying. They were considered to be infant-oriented in their thinking about crying if they could accurately identify infant distress, reported feeling empathy for the infants, thought the infants were crying because they needed care, and believed crying is how babies communicate. Mothers were considered mother-oriented in their thinking about crying if they believed crying was a nuisance and thought the babies in the video were crying to be manipulative.

Our Infant Massage classes address this subject, emphasizing that babies cry to communicate, and parents can learn what their babies are “saying” and respond to it. Daily massage greatly helps by keeping parents “in touch” with their babies. Massage given in the way we teach it communicates security and uncompromising love from parent to baby, and helps parents learn about their babies’ body language in a unique way that no other activity can. Infant Massage can help parents whose childhood experiences with caregivers was negative come to terms with childhood experiences and learn to respond sensitively to their infants’ crying.