Maternal Responsibilities During Interaction

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The mother-child relationship is initially embedded in acts of caregiving such as feeding, bathing, playing, and responding to the baby's signs of distress. A particularly challenging part of relating to the infant is learning how to monitor and read the nonverbal language of the infant. The baby has an organized set of nonverbal symbols that communicate the basic message of continue or stop this action. The engagement and disengagement cues of infants have been identified as present right at birth (Barnard, 1976; Sumner and Spietz, 1994). Examples of potent engagement cues are mutual gaze, reaching toward the caregiver, smiling, and turning to the caregiver. Subtle disengagement cues are more numerous and include back arching, crawling away, halt hand (putting hand up with palm facing out in a stoplike gesture), overhand beating movement of arms, pulling away, spitting up, tray pounding, and withdrawing from an active to a sleep state. There are also subtle engagement and disengagement cues. Each of these subtle cues in isolation has little meaning; however, when several subtle disengagement cues occur in rapid sequence, such as look away, tongue show, and hand behind ear, this signals distress in the baby; when the mother sees this activity and responds by slowing her pace, stopping, or changing the activity, she succeeds in responding to the child's communication about distress.

Empirical work suggests that the mother-child interaction aspect has the greatest impact on the child's subsequent development. Considerable research has demonstrated important links between qualities of mother-child interactions and child development outcomes (Barnard, 1994; Barnard and Kelly, 1989; Beckwith and Cohen, 1984; Bee et al., 1982; Bell and Ainsworth, 1972; Belsky, Rovine, and Taylor, 1984; Bornstein, 1989; Bornstein and Tamis-LeMonda, 1989; Clarke-Stewart, 1973; Coates and Lewis, 1984; Elardo, Bradley, and Caldwell, 1975; Hammond, Bee, Barnard, and Eyres, 1983; Morisset, 1994; Nelson, 1973; Olson, Bates, and Bayles, 1984; Papousek and Bornstein, 1992; Ramey, Farran, and Campbell, 1979; Wachs, Uzgiris, and Hunt, 1971; Yarrow, Rubenstein, and Pedersen, 1975). Researchers have established strong relations between specific elements of early mother-child interactions and later skills or qualities in the child. Overall, positive quality interactions during the first years of life tend to be positively linked to the child's subsequent intellectual and language capacities, to more secure attachments to major caregivers, and to more competent behavioral strategies (Kochanska and Aksan, 1995; Kochanska, Aksan, and Koenig, 1995; Kochanska and Murray, 2000; NICHD, in press).

The socioemotional environment relative to the mother-infant interactive system is established through reciprocal behaviors on the part of both infant and mother (Brazelton, Koslowski, and Main, 1974). During interaction both mother and infant reciprocally influence the behavior of the other in a way that is potentially rewarding for both of them. Through a process of social interaction and bidirectional influences, the mother and the infant learn to adapt, modify, and change their behaviors in response to the other. The achievement of heightened positive affect, increased alertness, and extended episodes of mutual attention provide the infant with a framework on which to build future social experience.

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