Caregiver sensitivity

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The first principles of attachment theory were set out by Bowlby. Some of his later thinking, and much of the subsequent development of attachment theory, was influenced by the American-Canadian psychologist Mary Ainsworth.

Mary Ainsworth reinforced basic concepts and introduced other key concepts and classifications. One of these concepts was caregiver sensitivity, which she and her team of researchers devised a scale to measure (Ainsworth, Bell, and Stayton, 1974).

Sensitivity was defined as the caregiver’s “ability to perceive and to interpret accurately the signals and communications implicit in her infant’s behaviour, and given this understanding, to respond to them appropriately” (Ainsworth, et al., 1974, p. 127).

Ainsworth described four essential components to sensitivity:

  1. awareness of signal

  2. accurate interpretation of them

  3. appropriate responses to them

  4. prompt responses to them.

Ainsworth’s research indicated that ‘Without exception, the infants whose mothers rated low in sensitivity displayed one or another of the behaviour patterns… which reflects a disturbed attachment-exploration balance’ (p. 107).

More recent research, building on Ainsworth’s concept of sensitivity, has demonstrated a causal link between caregiver sensitivity and the child’s attachment security: ‘when an intervention is rather successful in enhancing maternal sensitivity, this change appears to be accompanied by a parallel positive change in infant attachment security’ (Bakermans-Kranenburg, et al., 2003, p. 211).


M D S Ainsworth, S M Bell and D J Stayton, (1974). Infant-mother attachment and social development: Socialisation as a product of reciprocal responsiveness signals. In M. Richards (Ed.), The integration of a child into a social world (pp. 99-135). London: CUP

M J Bakermans-Kranenburg, M H van Ijzendoorn and F Juffer, (2003). Less is more: Meta-analyses of sensitivity and attachment interventions in early childhood. Psychological Bulletin, 129(2), 195-215