Parental sensitivity in early development: Definition, methods, measurement, and generalizability

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


In this chapter, we address issues of definition, methods and measurement, and generalizability in research on parental sensitivity. Rooted in early theories of attachment (e.g., Baumrind, Ainsworth), sensitive parenting has long been associated with positive cognitive and socioemotional development in young children. Parent sensitivity, however, can assume different forms, be assessed through different methods and through the use of different coding systems, and can yield both universal and specific patterns of expression and prediction in different cultural and socio-economic groups. Here, we highlight the value of: (1) considering contingent responsiveness as a core defining feature of parental sensitivity; (2) using observational methods in the study of parental sensitivity, so as to enable both the global and micro-level coding of behaviors; and (3) testing the generalizability of parental sensitivity through various lenses (e.g., by comparing mean levels of parental responsiveness; target behaviors to which parents respond; the types of responses parents display; and patterns of association from responsiveness to child outcomes). We conclude by considering various mechanisms that explain the predictive validity of parental sensitivity, including its role in infant attachment, the role of temporal contingency in infant learning, and the ways that sensitive interactions foster shared topics of conversation and thus language growth in young children.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationMaternal Sensitivity
Subtitle of host publicationA Scientific Foundation for Practice
PublisherNova Science Publishers, Inc.
Number of pages16
ISBN (Print)9781611227284
StatePublished - Jan 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology
  • General Social Sciences


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