Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

"Good Enough" Attunement

Not all of a baby's signals are equally important.

"Attunement" is the term used to describe parents' reactiveness to their babies' moods and emotions. Well-attuned parents detect what their babies are feeling and reflect those emotions back in their facial expressions, voices, and other behavior. Some authors have emphasized the role of attunement in helping children to recognize and regulate their own feelings, and have even proposed that parent-child psychotherapy needs to involve the parents' demonstration of attunement to older children.

The connection between attunement and personality development is a plausible one, although it is difficult to test it. But some questions are raised when we think about attunement in the everyday world. Surely nobody could mean that parents always have to be attuned- it's just not practical to expect that they could be. The child psychiatrist Donald Winnicott used to refer to the need for a "good enough mother", and that could be translated into a "well-enough attuned" mother or father. What is good enough attunement, though?

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An interesting recent study looked at one of the possible aspects of good enough attunement. (This was a paper by E.M. Leerkes, A.N. Blankson, and M. O'Brien, "Differential Effects of Maternal Sensitivity to Infant Distress and Nondistress on Social-Emotional Functioning", Child Development, 2009, Vol. 80, pp. 762-775.) These authors looked at mothers and babies who were participating in the National Institute of Child Health and Development Study of Early Child Care. They watched mothers and babies together at 6 months of age and rated the mothers' sensitivity to both distress, like crying, and nondistress, like social gestures and signals. When the babies were 24 and 36 months old, the researchers rated them on behavior problems and social competence.

The idea of attunement seems to be that parents should react sensitively to all kinds of signals from their babies, at least some of the time. But this is not what the study appears to have shown to be needed. According to these researchers' results, the important thing was that the mothers reacted to signals of distress. If they did, their babies were more likely to have higher social competence and smaller numbers of behavior problems. There was no harm done if the mothers were sensitive to nondistress signals , but it did not make much difference to the factors measured whether they did or not. If the babies were fussy, with difficult temperaments, their mothers' sensitivity to distress was especially important and prevented the babies from being easily upset and dysregulated.

The importance of responding to distress seems understandable from an evolutionary point of view. Long ago, in the environment to which early human beings adapted, there were probably few times when adult caregivers could give their entire attention to babies. Environmental threats and physical needs would have required almost constant attentiveness. A cheerful, sociable baby would be of a lower priority than finding food or escaping danger, but a distressed baby might need real help in order to survive, or even be signaling an event that could endanger the whole group. Evolutionary pressures might have selected for parents who were especially responsive to distress, but not necessarily for those who responded to nondistress. (In fact, the latter may have been eaten by something while responding to their cute babies.) Similarly, there might have been selection for individuals who in infancy did not particularly need response to their social signals, but who learned important things from adults' response to their distress communications. The whole group would have benefited from having children who learned quickly to calm themselves when uncomfortable, even if they had to do this by summoning an adult; under attack from another human group, or from wild animals, these children would be less likely to attract attention than if they had cried loudly with fear. Although we moderns might like to think that positive social signals are very important, they might not have been the most important issue for people living in small bands and unable to exercise many choices of action.

The study discussed here looked at only a small number of possible outcomes, and examined those only over the first three years of the children's lives. It is possible that measuring other factors such as language development would have shown a larger effect for the mothers' responsiveness to social signals. It might also be that the outcomes would be different by adolescence or adulthood; what is true for young children does not necessarily hold with greater age. However, the study does give us some possible insight into the meaning of "good enough" attunement.


Jean Mercer is a developmental psychologist with a special interest in parent-infant relationships.


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