Maternal sensitivity according to Mary Ainsworth

Maternal sensitivity according to Mary Ainsworth

Being a mother is not easy: there are many challenges to face. On the other hand, this role is even more complicated when the person taking it carries with them deep wounds that she has not been able to heal.

Maternal sensitivity according to Mary Ainsworth

Last update: 25 September, 2022

The concept of maternal sensitivity was introduced and developed by Mary Ainsworth. According to the Canadian psychologist, mothers respond differently to their babies depending on the degree of sensitivity they have towards their needs.

From this point of view, we can distinguish four types or styles of maternal sensitivity: sensitive, unavailable, hypervigilant and ambiguous. Each of these responses and ways of relating in turn generates a different style of attachment on the part of the child towards the mother.

Although it is very often said that there is a universal prototype of the mother figure, not all women are able to adapt to it. In many cases, individual circumstances and experiences limit or prevent what should naturally happen. We discover in the following paragraphs the four styles of maternal sensitivity.

“A Mother is she who can take the place of all the others, but whose place no one else can take”.

-Gaspard Mermillod-

Styles of maternal sensitivity

1. Sensitive mother, the main form of maternal sensitivity

Ainsworth defines maternal sensitivity as the mother's ability to interpret and understand three aspects of the child's life.

The first is non-verbal communication, a channel that is very important during the first few years. The second includes the emotional states of the child. And the third is made up of respect for the timing of dialogue and the silence that the child demands.

When maternal sensitivity operates in the most appropriate way, the mother is sensitive. In this case the woman is able to capture most of her child's emotions and interprets them appropriately. Likewise, it is able to regulate the flow of interactions, that is the alternation between dialogue and silence.

2. Mother not available

Another style of maternal sensitivity is the "unavailable mother". In this case, the mother is more reluctant to meet the needs of the child. It usually manifests itself as a minimization of the child's negative affects.

She is the kind of mother who says her child cries only on whim, feels grudge and resentment, and gets easily nervous. She very often scolds the child and threatens to use physical strength to achieve obedience.

She tries hard to stay in control and believes that the baby must adapt to her, even though she is the newcomer. Generally, he is inflexible and uses humiliation to make himself heard and obeyed.

Despite this, she goes to great lengths to convey to others an image of a model mother. Once grown up, children will exhibit antisocial traits, will be prone to narcissism and addictions.

3. Hypervigilant mother

Hypervigilant mothers respond inadequately to the baby's negative emotions. They get easily overwhelmed by the child's anguish or anxiety, becoming irritated and nervous.

The woman reacts according to her mood. If she is in a bad mood, she criticizes the little one because she cries or gets angry. The dialogue she establishes with her son is minimal, as is the physical contact.

This type of maternal sensitivity causes rigidity and a mania for control. Motherhood is distressing for the woman who compensates for the discomfort felt with an excessive concern for the child, thus exercising a suffocating overprotection.

Such a bond generates anxious children, who will be in a bad mood for no apparent reason, will feel inferior, and will be very sensitive to criticism from others.

4. Maternal sensitivity: ambiguous mother

Among the styles of maternal sensitivity, the ambiguous mother appears as a threatening and protective figure at the same time. She is a woman who has felt and feels a lot of pain.

His ambiguity towards the child is not moderate, but extreme and ranges from stroking to violent behavior. This mother loves and abuses at the same time.

He does not show consistent conduct, as gestures of affection and threat occur randomly. She can protect for long periods, only to become unstable and threatening.

Generally, it is a person who has not healed his childhood wounds and for this reason they establish a bond of toxic dependence with their children. He generates confusion and instability often by imparting an education that favors risky conduct.


Most mothers say they want to see their children happy. However, not everyone has a healthy concept of happiness, and some do not realize that they are engaging in unhealthy behavior.

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