Mothers' Soothing: Do Infants Really Care?

March 09, 1999

Mothers who soothe their infants when they are in distress and pain may believe that's what motherhood is all about. But do their infants really care?

Not very much, say scientists at the Institute for the Study of Child Development, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, who cite physiological response data from two new studies reported in the February issue of the journal, Child Development.

The studies measured how mothers' soothing affected their 2- to 6-month-old infants? behavioral responses and levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, during routine inoculations. Maternal soothing was not effective in reducing either the infants' cortisol response or their behavioral reaction to the stress, say Michael Lewis, PhD, and Douglas S. Ramsay, Ph.D.

They even found that more maternal soothing was linked to more infant disquiet and speculate that this might be because the infant's temperament influences whether the mother tries to soothe it rather than the other way around.

"Even though maternal soothing appears to be relatively unimportant," they say, "maternal behavior in general may be important in affecting cortisol and behavioral stress responses. Mothers not only soothe their infants when (they are) distressed, they also provide positive environments which may prevent distress from occurring. Thus, maternal behavior that prevents distress may be more important than maternal soothing in affecting infant stress responses."

Maternal behavior in positive mother-infant interactions does appear to be related to an infant's social, emotional and cognitive function, the researchers say. While soothing may not actually relieve the infant's distress, the link between the soothing and the distress may later lead to the child's developing a model of the world in which the mother is seen as someone who is interested in the child's well-being.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health.
Child Development is the bimonthly peer-reviewed journal of the Society for Research in Child Development. For information about the journal, please contact Jonathan J. Aiken, 734-998-7310.

Posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health For information about the Center, contact, 202-387-2829.

Center for Advancing Health

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