Parental sensitivity and nurturance

Carrie E. Depasquale, Megan R. Gunnar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Parental sensitivity and nurturance are important mechanisms for establishing biological, emotional, and social functioning in childhood. Sensitive, nurturing care is most critical during the first three years of life, when attachment relationships form and parental care shapes foundational neural and physiological systems, with lifelong consequences. Sensitive, nurturing care also buffers children from the negative effects of growing up in difficult circumstances such as poverty. In this article, Carrie DePasquale and Megan Gunnar examine several interventions that directly or indirectly target parental sensitivity and nurturance, and demonstrate the causal role that this type of care plays in children’s development, especially during the first three years of life. They note that even though sensitive, nurturing care is still helpful after infancy and early childhood, it doesn’t completely mitigate the effects of not receiving this type of care early in life. And because sensitive care involves knowing when to respond and when to let the child manage more independently, excessive responsiveness, overinvolvement, and intrusiveness are also forms of insensitive care. Sensitive and nurturing parent behaviors vary across cultures, and numerous other factors influence parental sensitivity as well. For example, children’s temperament and emotional reactivity may affect parents’ behavior and/or alter the effects of parenting behavior on children’s development. Physiological, cognitive, and emotional self-regulatory capabilities, as well as socioeconomic and environmental factors, can also affect a parent’s ability to provide sensitive, nurturing care. Based on the expansive research related to parental sensitivity and nurturance, the authors recommend that policy makers should aim to increase family and community access to programs that enhance sensitive, nurturing care and support parents so they can provide high-quality care to their children.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)53-70
Number of pages18
JournalFuture of Children
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Large-scale studies like the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (SECCYD) and the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation (MLSRA), both funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, have been able to investigate this question. One analysis of SECCYD data determined that greater parental sensitivity at age three predicted fewer teacher-reported mental health symptoms across five assessments up to age 15, even when controlling for parental sensitivity at all later assessments. An analysis of the MLSRA showed an enduring association between maternal sensitivity in the first three years and social and academic competence through age 32. However, when both “early” and “later” parenting are measured before age three (for example, at 15 and 24 months), the earlier measure of parenting doesn’t always show a stronger effect. These studies clearly support the idea that parental sensitivity before age three, over and above parenting behaviors years later, is crucial for children’s long-term adaptive functioning.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020, Princeton University. All rights reserved.


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