Normal variation in early parental sensitivity predicts child structural brain development

Rianne Kok, Sandra Thijssen, Marian J. Bakermans-Kranenburg, Vincent W.V. Jaddoe, Frank C. Verhulst, Tonya White, Marinus H. Van IJzendoorn, Henning Tiemeier*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Objective Early caregiving can have an impact on brain structure and function in children. The influence of extreme caregiving experiences has been demonstrated, but studies on the influence of normal variation in parenting quality are scarce. Moreover, no studies to date have included the role of both maternal and paternal sensitivity in child brain maturation. This study examined the prospective relation between mothers' and fathers' sensitive caregiving in early childhood and brain structure later in childhood. Method Participants were enrolled in a population-based prenatal cohort. For 191 families, maternal and paternal sensitivity was repeatedly observed when the child was between 1 year and 4 years of age. Head circumference was assessed at 6 weeks, and brain structure was assessed using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) measurements at 8 years of age. Results Higher levels of parental sensitivity in early childhood were associated with larger total brain volume (adjusted β = 0.15, p =.01) and gray matter volume (adjusted β = 0.16, p =.01) at 8 years, controlling for infant head size. Higher levels of maternal sensitivity in early childhood were associated with a larger gray matter volume (adjusted β = 0.13, p =.04) at 8 years, independent of infant head circumference. Associations with maternal versus paternal sensitivity were not significantly different. Conclusion Normal variation in caregiving quality is related to markers of more optimal brain development in children. The results illustrate the important role of both mothers and fathers in child brain development.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)824-831
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • brain structure
  • father
  • mother
  • MRI
  • sensitivity


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