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Two babies playing
Credits: Eric Peacock / Flickr CC

From an evolutionary perspective, babies attach to their parents for survival. A baby who is securely attached, experiences her parent as a safe haven and secure base. When a baby experiences stress, pain or other negative emotions, she will seek the support of a parent and will allow herself to be soothed. Moreover, a baby who is securely attached will feel free to observe and explore an environment in the vicinity of a parent. ‘There are strong differences in the quality of attachment between children, and these differences have in turn shown to be extremely important for understanding differences in the development and mental health of people’, says Moniek Zeegers, a PhD researcher at the UvA’s department of Child Development and Education. ‘Children who feel securely attached are, among other things, better at regulating their emotions, have higher self-esteem and exhibit less emotional and behavioural problems  

The researchers used a meta-analysis to test whether a link exists between parents’ tendency to read the thoughts and feelings of their baby and secure infant-parent attachment. The researchers also examined whether there is a connection between parents’ tendency to read the feelings of their baby and sensitive parenting behaviour. 

Hide and seek or rather a rattle?  

Previous studies have shown noticeable differences in the degree to which parents mentalize. Parents who do so consistently think about the autonomous emotions, thoughts, needs and preferences that could explain their baby’s behaviour. Zeegers: ‘For instance, a mentalizing parent sees which toy the baby prefers or whether a baby becomes overstimulated because of a game like hide and seek, or when a baby is inquisitive about a cat walking past. A parent who struggles to mentalize, shows an inability to correctly interpret the baby’s signals. The parent, for example, frequently projects her own anxieties or frustrations on the baby, or does not sufficiently take into account the child’s needs and preferences. Every parent sometimes misreads his or her baby’s signals, but when this overshadows interactions it can negatively impact the child’s development.’

There are various reasons for misinterpreting a baby’s signals, such as a general difficulty in accepting that a baby has negative feelings, parental stress, or overestimating a baby’s skills. Moreover, the ability to mentalize also reveals the extent to which a parent is attached to his or her own parent. A parent who is insecurely attached has an increased risk of having difficulties with reading other people’s minds.

On the basis of the meta-analysis, the researchers conclude that parents who frequently and adequately mentalize are better placed to appropriately react to a baby’s behaviour, which in turn predicts a higher chance for secure attachment. A parent’s ability to be attuned to the baby’s mind thus proves to be a strong predictor for a positive start to a child’s development.

Strengthening the ability to mentalize

At the moment, the number of available interventions aimed at stimulating and/or changing parents’ ability to mentalize are limited, but nonetheless show promising results. The researchers therefore recommend that family therapy aimed at facilitating a secure attachment relationship between parent and infant should focus on behavioural change but also on strengthening parents’ ability to mentalize. Also, the current information material for new parents is strongly geared towards parental behaviour, but could have a greater focus on developing a parent’s general awareness of what their baby is thinking and feeling and how they can better perceive it.

Publication details

Zeegers, M. A. J., Colonnesi, C., Stams, G.-J. J. M., & Meins, E. (2017). Mind matters: A meta-analysis on parental mentalization and sensitivity as predictors of infant–parent attachment. Psychological Bulletin, 143(12), 1245-1272.