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Responsive, Sensitive Parenting and Healthy Development

How providing children with nurturance impacts their social and emotional growth.

Key points

  • Parenting doesn’t come with much guidance despite it being overwhelming and complicated.
  • Responsive, sensitive parenting is an evidence-based best practice for raising emotionally healthy children.
  • Forming connections with your children can and should start from birth.
  • “Nurture” can override “nature.”
Source: Aditya Romansa / Unsplash
The emotional health of a newborn depends on the quality of maternal-infant responsivity beginning at birth.
Source: Aditya Romansa / Unsplash

The emotional health of a newborn depends on the quality of maternal-infant responsivity beginning at birth. Responsive, sensitive parenting (RSP) is the best evidence-based practice model to provide an infant with essential maternal and paternal nurturance, safety, emotionality, security, touch, soothing, stimulation, and basic care. [1]

The Process of Parenting

Parenting a psychologically healthy child is an arduous process—the most difficult human endeavor, in fact—and requires all of our resources. We must be constantly attentive to our helpless newborns, and the job continues into infancy and early childhood. Yet most mothers and fathers parent with little or no guidance. Indeed, most of us are parents the same way we were parented. When the warning lights on the dashboard flash red, we can’t reach for an owner’s manual, and when we get lost, we can’t consult a map, turn on the GPS, or print out directions.

Core Features of Responsive, Sensitive Parenting

Responsive, sensitive parenting (RSP) is based on revolutionary scientific findings in developmental psychology, affective neuroscience, and evidence-based best practice. As such, it is considered by many experts to be the best parenting model. The core features and methods of practicing are based on genuine, mutual dialogue, respect, empathy, ongoing intersubjectivity, serve and return, mind-mindedness, compassion, and treating your child as having a unique mind.

The Science of Parenting

Parents who are physically absent or emotionally unavailable are merely recreating the patterns and lack of maternal caregiving they experienced as children. The maternal attachment bond must be established at birth. There’s no time to waste in forming this vital connection to ensure a foundation for healthy emotional, social, and cognitive development.

The science of parenting indicates that development is a socially interactive process. A child’s environment, both before and soon after birth, provides experiences that can modify genes and determine how and when they are expressed. Put another way, a child’s life course and developmental stages aren’t solely influenced by the effects of genetics.

Environmental factors can mitigate and override the powerful influence of genes on a child’s developmental course. An example of this environmental influence can be found in the development of executive functioning skills. Genetically speaking, healthy children are born with the ability to control impulses, focus attention, and retain information. The quality of caregiving and experiences during the first three years of life will provide the structure and foundation for the degree to which such skills will develop.

In his formulation of attachment theory, John Bowlby defined responsive, sensitive parenting as follows:

“Responsive, sensitive parenting refers to family interactions in which parents are aware of their child’s emotional and physical needs and respond appropriately and consistently. Sensitive parents are ‘in tune’ with their children.” [2]


As a concept in developmental psychology, mind-mindedness refers to a caregiver’s tendency to view their child as an individual with a mind rather than merely an entity with needs that must be satisfied. Mind-mindedness involves adopting an intentional stance toward another person. Proposed by American philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, the intentional stance is a strategy for interpreting and predicting behavior that views organisms as rational beings acting in a reasonable manner according to their beliefs and desires (i.e., their intentions). [3]

Mind-mindedness differs greatly from the parenting attitudes of past generations. The old-fashioned mantra, “Do what I say, not what I do,” has been scientifically discredited and has been supplanted by a new responsive sensitivity to the uniqueness, idiosyncrasies, immediacies, and individuality of the wants and needs of our children. Serve and return, the ongoing caregiver-child interaction is paramount because it promotes attachment and emotional growth—for child and parent alike. This ongoing social and physical interaction, both verbal and nonverbal, also facilitates normal psychosocial, emotional, cognitive, and brain development.

Researcher Elizabeth Meins is best known for coining the term and concept of mind-mindedness. This was her attempt to operationalize further and emphasize, in more depth, Mary Ainsworth’s notion of sensitivity. In her paper, Sensitive Attunement to Infants’ Internal States: Operationalizing the Construct of Mind-Mindedness, Meins focuses on caregiving sensitivity and its association with mind-mindedness. The study also correlates the degree to which those two constructs predict infant attachment security. [4]


1: The content in this post draws from Dr. Ruff’s forthcoming book, Raising Children to Thrive.

2: Bowlby, J. A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. New York: Basic Books, 2008.

3: Meins, E., Fernyhough, C., Fradley, E., & Tuckey, M. “Rethinking Maternal Sensitivity: Mothers’ Comments on Infants’ Mental Processes Predict Security of Attachment at 12 Months.” Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry & Allied Disciplines, 42(5):637, 2001. DOI: 10.1111/1469-7610.00759

4: Meins, E. “Sensitive attunement to infants’ internal states: operationalizing the construct of mind-mindedness.” Attachment & Human Development, 15(5/6):524–544, 2013. DOI: 10.1080/14616734.2013.830388

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