Physiological Reactivity to Infant Crying and Observed Maternal Sensitivity

Katharina J. Joosen, Judi Mesman*, Marian J. Bakermans-Kranenburg, Suzanne Pieper, Philip S. Zeskind, Marinus H. Van Ijzendoorn

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Relations between maternal sensitivity and physiological reactivity to infant crying were examined using measures of heart rate (HR) and respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) in 49 mothers of second-born infants. Using the Ainsworth Sensitivity Scale, an independent assessment of maternal sensitivity was made during maternal free play and bathing of their infants. Physiological reactivity was measured while mothers listened to three blocks of infant cry sounds in a standard cry paradigm. Mothers scoring high on sensitivity were compared to less sensitive mothers on both their physiological reactivity to the presented crying sounds and their physiological mean-level differences. Significant interaction effects were found for both HR and RSA. Highly sensitive mothers showed a larger increase in HR and stronger RSA withdrawal in response to the first block of cry sounds compared to less sensitive mothers. Main effects showed that highly sensitive mothers had lower mean overall HR, and higher mean RSA levels across all three blocks of crying sounds compared to less sensitive mothers. RSA withdrawal and accompanying HR increases are discussed from a polyvagal perspective as indicative of a better capability in responding to infant signals of negative affect.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)414-431
Number of pages18
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2013
Externally publishedYes


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