Nighttime maternal responsiveness and infant attachment at one year
Elizabeth Higley and Mary Dozier*
Department of Psychology, University of Delaware, Newark, DE, USA
(Received 5 November 2008; ﬁnal version received 10 January 2009)
This study examined associations between mother–infant nighttime interactions
and mother–infant attachment when infants were 12 months old. Forty-four
mother–infant pairs participated in this study. For three consecutive nights at
home, babies were observed in their cribs using a digital video system. Mothers
reported on their nighttime interactions with their babies using a self-report diary
and completed a questionnaire regarding child temperament. Attachment was
assessed in the Strange Situation (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978).
Mothers of securely attached infants had nighttime interactions that were
generally more consistent, sensitive and responsive than those of insecurely
attached infants. Speciﬁcally, in secure dyads, mothers generally picked up and
soothed infants when they fussed or cried after an awakening.
Keywords: maternal responsiveness; attachment; infants; nighttime; sleep
Popular parenting literature (e.g., Ferber, 1985/2006), as well as many pediatricians
and psychologists (e.g., Meltzer & Mindell, 2004), suggest that parents should teach
babies to soothe themselves to sleep by not responding to their cries for attention.
These recommendations are based on evidence that parental nighttime interactions
(e.g., rocking, feeding, parental presence) initiate and maintain sleep problems
(Adair, Bauchner, Philipp, Levenson, & Zuckerman, 1991; Morrell & Cortina-Borja,
2002; Van Tassel, 1985). Attachment theory, however, suggests that parents respond
quickly and sensitively to infants’ signals (e.g., Ainsworth, Bell, & Stayton, 1974),
thus appearing at odds with this contemporary advice regarding handling sleep
issues. With several exceptions (Scher, 2001; Scher & Asher, 2004), attachment
researchers have not addressed this issue of nighttime responsiveness directly, even
though daytime responsiveness has been researched extensively. From an
evolutionary perspective, nighttime is associated with a greater likelihood of
threatening conditions than daytime (Bowlby, 1969/1982; Norluchi, Kikucki, &
Senoo, 2007), thus making the study of the attachment system during nighttime
interactions especially important. Given the emphasis in the popular literature on
teaching infants to soothe themselves to sleep, even when it involves crying for
progressively longer periods of time (Adair et al., 1991; Ferber, 1985/2006), this issue
is critical. This study examined the association between mother–infant nighttime
interactions and infant attachment security.
*Corresponding author. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Attachment & Human Development
Vol. 11, No. 4, July 2009, 347–363
ISSN 1461-6734 print/ISSN 1469-2988 online
!2009 Taylor & Francis
The most common sleep problems in early childhood are the inability to fall asleep
alone (sleep onset problems) and problems resuming sleep alone after an awakening
(night waking problems) (Gaylor, Goodlin-Jones, & Anders, 2001). However, there are
no standard criteria or clear deﬁnitions for infant sleep problems (Goodlin-Jones,
Burnham, & Anders, 2000; Tikotzky & Sadeh, 2001). The main criterion for
determining a sleep problem is parental distress regarding infants who do not fall
asleep without their parents’ help (Ferber, 1985/2006; Gaylor et al., 2001). Further,
sleep experts have found that night waking is normal in young children (Goodlin-Jones
et al., 2000; Sadeh, 2002; Scher & Asher, 2004) and that ‘‘all children wake periodically
during the night between sleep cycles’’ (Ferber, 1985/2006, p. 62). Thus, the real issue is
in understanding why some infants cry when they wake at night and how to respond to
their cries. Ferber asserted that infants cry when they wake because they are frustrated
to ﬁnd that the conditions they have learned to associate with falling asleep (e.g., being
rocked, held or patted) are no longer present and, therefore, they need to reestablish
those conditions to fall back to sleep. He cautioned that repeatedly going in to comfort
a child is ‘‘often not the best thing to do’’ and ‘‘may only be strengthening a habit, not
responding to a real need’’ (Ferber, 1985/2006, p. 99). He advised that infants learn
sleep associations that do not involve parental support or intervention, although he
also conceded more recently that parents can do whatever they feel is best ‘‘as long as it
works’’ (Ferber, 1985/2006, p. 41).
Attachment theory provides another possible explanation for the problem of
infants who cry for their parents at night. Bowlby contends that children are
biologically programmed to respond with fear to certain situations. Conditions such
as being alone and in darkness elicit fear because they signal potential danger,
regardless of the real danger. Fear-inducing situations activate the attachment
system and children display attachment behaviors (e.g., crying, protesting separa-
tion, clinging when frightened) to gain proximity to caregivers (Bowlby, 1973). These
are innate behaviors, not learned habits. Ainsworth et al. (1974) described infant
behaviors (e.g., crying, demands for contact, and intolerance of separation) that
serve a biological function but are inconvenient to caregivers. Nighttime waking,
particularly when it involves crying and demands for contact, is an example of an
aspect of early development that may be inconvenient to parents in developed
cultures. Infants, even those who have grown accustomed to the parental expectation
of transitioning to sleep alone, may be biologically predisposed to signal their
distress to these separations.
Attachment and sleep
Several studies have examined associations between attachment and sleep problems
or sleep–wake behavior. In a study of toddlers whose mothers received treatment for
their children’s sleep problem, Benoit et al. (1992) found that 100% of the mothers of
toddlers with sleep problems had non-autonomous states of mind with regard to
attachment, compared to 57% of the control group. Morrell and Steele (2003), in a
study of 14–16-month-olds with sleep problems, found that ambivalent attachment
was associated with concurrent and persistent sleep problems. Seifer, Sameroﬀ,
Dickstein, Hayden, and Schiller (1996) found, in a sample of adults with emerging
psychiatric disorders, insecurely attached 12-month-olds had more parent-reported
night wakings than securely attached infants. Thus, clinical studies of infants and
toddlers suggest that sleep problems are associated with insecure attachment.
348 E. Higley and M. Dozier
By contrast, in studies with community samples of normal Israeli infants,
attachment has not been associated with sleep problems or with objective night
waking and sleep eﬃciency. In a study of 94 1-year-old infants, Scher (2001) found
that attachment security, assessed with the Strange Situation, was not associated
with parent-reported sleep problems or actigraphic measures of sleep eﬃciency and
night waking. Similarly, Scher and Asher (2004) found that attachment security,
assessed by the Attachment Q-Sort (Waters & Deane, 1985), was not associated with
parent-reported sleep problems, bedtime settling strategies, or actigraphic measures
of sleep eﬃciency and night waking in 12-month-olds. Thus, these studies failed to
ﬁnd support for the link between attachment and infant sleep. With the exception of
Scher (2001) and Scher and Asher (2004), these studies relied on parent report rather
than observational measures of sleep problems. Given that parents of children
diﬀering in attachment quality may diﬀerentially report child problems, it is critical
that observational studies be conducted.
The present study
The purpose of this study was to investigate the associations between mother–infant
nighttime interactions and mother–infant attachment security when infants were 12
months old. Unlike prior studies of attachment and sleep, this study used video
observation of nighttime interaction rather thanmaternal report or actigraphic measures
of infant sleep behavior. This methodology provides the opportunity to observe the
quality of mother–infant interactions rather than relying upon frequency counts or
durations of infant sleep behaviors, such as the number and length of awakenings.
Secure mother–infant dyads were expected to be characterized by more
consistent, sensitive, and responsive maternal behavior during nighttime interactions
than insecure dyads. According to attachment theory, the development of secure
attachment results from experiences with an available, reliable and comforting
caregiver (Ainsworth et al., 1978; Bowlby, 1969/1982). Infants in securely attached
relationships were expected to signal clearly when they woke during the night. This
hypothesis rests on the assumption that a history of responsive caregiving leads
secure infants to expect that their needs will be met quickly and sensitively.
Fifty-two 12-month-old infants were recruited into the study. Digital video
observations were collected for 46 of the 52 infants. (The video recordings of two
infants were lost due to technical errors and six infants were not videotaped at all
because they either slept in the living room or in their parents’ room.) Analyses were
conducted with the 44 infants (29 male) for whom video observations were available.
Of this group, 36 were White (non-Hispanic), 4 were Asian-American, 3 were
African-American, and 1 was Biracial. Twenty-seven were ﬁrst born, 15 were second
born, and 2 were fourth born. Thirty-nine infants were born full-term (37–41 weeks
gestation), 3 were post-term (over 41 weeks gestation), and 2 were premature (less
than 37 weeks gestation). Mean infant age at the time of the study was 12.8 months
(Range 11–14 months; SD ¼.77).
Mothers’ age at the time of the study ranged from 24–44 years of age
(Median ¼32). Annual family income ranged from $40,000 (US$) to $200,000
Attachment & Human Development 349
(US$) (Median ¼$92,000). Fifteen mothers described themselves as homemakers, 14
were working full-time, 14 were working part-time, and 1 was a part-time student.
Six mothers had a high school diploma, 3 had an associate’s degree, 19 had a college
degree, 11 had a master’s degree, and 5 had a professional degree or a doctoral
degree (see Table 1).
Most (57%) of the infants and their mothers were recruited by word of mouth,
14% were recruited from a university childcare center, 18% from mothers’ groups,
9% from a pediatric practice, and 2% from the workplace. Healthy, singleton infants
and their married, English-speaking mothers were included. Mothers were required
to be the primary caregivers at night, deﬁned as providing at least 75% of the
nighttime caregiving. Exclusion criteria included any evidence of abnormal
pregnancy or delivery and chronic health problems in the mother or infant. Families
were compensated $100 (US$) for their participation. Consent was obtained from all
Data were collected in the home and in the laboratory when infants were between 11
and 14 months of age. For three consecutive nights, a video camera was placed next
to the infant’s crib to record the infant’s night of sleep, including bedtime and night
waking interactions. The video recordings were limited to events that took place
while infants were in their cribs. The total number of hours of video observation
collected for all the participants combined was 1273 with a minimum of 5 and a
maximum of 38.5 hours per participant (Median ¼28.9). Mothers were asked to ﬁll
out a nighttime diary each morning and to complete a demographic and
temperament questionnaire in the home. After completing the nighttime observa-
tions and questionnaires at home, mothers and babies participated in the Strange
Situation Procedure (Ainsworth et al., 1978) in the laboratory.
Description of digital video system
Objective data on nighttime interactions were obtained using a digital video system.
Video/audio observations were recorded directly to a computer hard disk as digital
Table 1. Maternal and infant characteristics.
Characteristics Min. Max. M SD %
Attachment classiﬁcation (% secure) 61
Infants’ gender (% male) 66
Infants’ age at time of study (months) 11.4 14.4 12.78 .77
Ethnicity of infants (% Caucasian) 82
Ethnicity of mothers (% Caucasian) 82
Mothers’ age at time of study (years) 24 44 32.61 4.60
Family income (US$) 40,000 200,000 98,629 36,209
First born (%) 61
Full-term (%) 89
Mother as main weekday
caregiver since birth (%)
350 E. Higley and M. Dozier
media. The base of the system is a multi port video capture card which captured
a separate audio track for each video track and gave the capture frame rate and level
of video compression desired. The computer was a standard Dell desktop with 1
megabyte of ram and a 3 gigahertz processor. A desktop computer was used because
the video capture card was not available for a laptop.
Using standard video coax cabling, two Sony color cameras designed for security
and surveillance were connected to the capture card. These ﬁxed focus, auto iris
cameras are small, durable, cost eﬀective, and have night vision capabilities with
built-in infrared illuminators. Typically, one camera was mounted to a microphone
stand next to the crib and the other was clamped onto a nearby shelf or piece of
furniture. The single boundary microphone was connected to a small pre-ampliﬁer
allowing level control. The computer, microphone and ampliﬁer were usually stored
under the crib.
There are several advantages of this system. First, it allows for capturing an
entire night without the use of time-lapse equipment and the video ﬁles can be
watched in real-time. Second, no additional eﬀort is required of the mothers because
the system is activated each night by a pre-set timer to turn on each evening and turn
oﬀeach morning. Third, the system is minimally disruptive to the baby’s sleep
because it is quiet and adds no visible light to the room due to the infrared
illuminators. Finally, the digital ﬁles (as opposed to videotape) provide a convenient
way to view, code and archive the data.
Overview of coding system for mother–infant nighttime interactions
The ﬁrst author, blind to infant attachment status, coded each of the video ﬁles by
increasing the speed of the video/audio to 16 times normal speed during the times
that the infant appeared to be asleep and watching the events of interest (i.e.,
bedtime and night wakings) at normal speed. The following information was
recorded at bedtime: time in crib, whether put in crib awake or asleep, and whether
infant cried in crib before falling asleep. The following information was recorded for
each awakening: time awake, conﬁdence that infant is awake, whether and how
infant vocalizes, who responds to the awakening, latency to respond to crying, and
how the infant is put back to sleep. A distinction was made between infants who
vocalized and those who signaled distress during an awakening. A vocalization was
deﬁned as any sound emitted by the infant (i.e., coos, grunts, whimpers, babbles, or
brief cry noises) that was not suﬃcient enough to be considered a signal of distress
(i.e., fussing or crying).
Infants diﬀered in whether and how they signaled an awakening. Some infants
(‘‘clear signalers’’) signaled their awakenings clearly by standing at the crib railing
and crying or fussing or sitting up and crying. Their signals seemed directed at their
caregivers as though they were calling for them. Others (‘‘not clear signalers’’)
signaled more passively and with less intensity, merely vocalized, or never seemed to
wake. Thus, infants were coded as either ‘‘clear signalers’’ or ‘‘not clear signalers’’
based on their predominant method of signaling.
In terms of patterns of nighttime interaction, there were diﬀerences in whether
and how mothers and infants interacted during the night. Some dyads had no
interaction during the night and others had multiple interactions. Some of those
interactions were smooth, in tune and responsive. Infants were responded to quickly,
picked up and later either returned to their crib to resume sleeping or taken into the
Attachment & Human Development 351
parents’ bed. Other interactions consisted of multiple attempts at soothing,
ineﬀective soothing attempts (i.e., rubbing the baby’s back in the crib while the
baby continued to cry) or showed little consistency in the type of soothing method
used from one waking to another. Thus, each infant–mother dyad was assigned a
global code to describe its overall pattern of nighttime interaction. This was arrived
at through a two-step process.
Each signaled awakening observed during the three nights was coded according
to the following methods of responding: (1) no response/let cry, (2) let cry (at least 5
minutes) and then soothe, (3) soothe in crib (including lay back down, give paciﬁer,
cover with blanket, pat back), (4) pick up, (5) increase physical contact (ﬁrst soothe
in crib and then pick up), (6) multiple attempts/no clear pattern (four or more
attempts at soothing or fewer than four attempts which could not be described using
one of the previous methods of responding). See Appendix A for additional details.
Second, a global code to characterize the overall pattern of nighttime interaction
per dyad was determined according to the most commonly used method of
responding per awakening across the three nights of observation. Infants who either
did not wake or did not signal distress during the three nights were coded ‘‘no wake/
no signal.’’ Infants who woke and signaled, but were usually not responded to were
coded ‘‘no response.’’ Infants who signaled distress and were usually picked up or
soothed in their cribs were coded ‘‘pick up/soothe.’’ Infants who were usually
soothed with four or more attempts at one awakening or an array of attempts across
all the awakenings were coded ‘‘multiple attempts/inconsistent.’’
To determine inter-rater reliability, 20% of the videotapes were coded by a
second rater. Observers showed agreement by coding each awakening with the same
method of responding and by coding each dyad with the same overall classiﬁcation
for mother–infant pattern of nighttime interaction. There was 71% agreement
(kappa ¼.58) between coders on the method of responding assigned to each
awakening. There was 89% agreement (kappa ¼.85) between coders on the
assignment to category for child signaling and to pattern of nighttime interaction,
which served as the primary data for analyses.
Maternal self-report of nighttime interactions
A nighttime self-report diary allowed mothers to report bedtime and night waking
interactions. This was used as an adjunct to the video observations. Mothers
reported on how infants were put to sleep at bedtime and what transpired if infants
woke during the night, such as whether a parent responded to the awakening and
how the infant fell back to sleep. The measure was based on Anders’ sleep–wake
diary (Goodlin-Jones, Burnham, Gaylor, & Anders, 2001) and Sadeh’s Brief Infant
Sleep Questionnaire (Sadeh, 2005).
Mother–infant attachment relationship
Attachment was assessed using the Strange Situation Procedure (Ainsworth et al.,
1978). This 24-minute laboratory task is designed to increasingly stress the infant to
assess his or her reliance on the mother for comfort during distress. The infant and
mother are separated and reunited twice and the infant’s attachment behaviors
during the reunion episodes are coded in terms of proximity-seeking, contact
maintenance, resistance, and avoidance (Ainsworth et al., 1978). Infant–mother
352 E. Higley and M. Dozier
dyads are assigned to one of four classiﬁcations: secure, avoidant, resistant, or
disorganized. Upon reunion, infants classiﬁed as secure (B) seek out whatever
contact is needed and calm easily in the presence of their mothers. Infants classiﬁed
as avoidant (A) turn away from their mothers when distressed. Infants classiﬁed as
resistant (C) show angry resistance to attempts by their mothers to calm them.
Infants classiﬁed as disorganized (D) appear to lack a strategy for dealing with
distress in the mother’s presence or show a breakdown in their strategies for dealing
with distress. For the purposes of this study, infant–mother dyads were grouped as
either secure (B) or insecure (A, C, or D) because of the small sample size.
Four trained coders (not including the coders of nighttime interaction) were
used to classify the infant–mother attachment relationship. Each attended a 2-week
training course on coding organized patterns of attachment (ABC) oﬀered by Alan
Sroufe and disorganized patterns of attachment (D) oﬀered by Elizabeth Carlson or
Mary Main, all experts in the assessment of attachment. All coders had passed
reliability tests for classifying organized attachment, achieving at least 80% agreement
with the expert coders. Two of the four coders had also passed reliability tests for
classifying disorganized attachment, achieving at least 80% agreement with the expert
coders. All Strange Situations were double-coded. Each pair of raters included one
rater reliable on coding disorganized attachment. When there were disagreements
between raters, the procedure was coded by a third reliable coder (i.e., the other coder
who was reliable on organized and disorganized attachment), with ﬁnal classiﬁcations
determined by conferencing of the three coders. In this sample, the agreement between
raters was 75% agreement (kappa ¼.47) for secure versus insecure classiﬁcations used
in analyses here. (Agreement was 77% for three-category distinctions, and 68% for
four-category distinctions, with kappas of .54 and .49, respectively.) Although this
level of agreement is somewhat lower than often obtained, this is compensated for by
the use of two raters on every Strange Situation, rather than only for a subset. Thus,
all Strange Situation classiﬁcations were concordant at the level of the 4-way
classiﬁcation, or involved a third coder who independently coded and conferenced
with the ﬁrst two coders to determine classiﬁcation.
Maternal perceived temperament
Temperament has been associated with attachment status and maternal sensitivity
(Seifer, Schiller, Sameroﬀ, Resnick, & Riordan, 1996); therefore, infant temperament
data were collected from mothers. Perceived temperament was assessed using ﬁve
subscales from the Revised Infant Behavior Questionnaire (IBQ-R; Gartstein &
Rothbart, 2003). The ﬁve subscales are Distress to Limitations, Fear, Soothability,
Cuddliness, and Smiling and Laughter. The IBQ-R is a 184-item instrument that
assesses 14 dimensions of temperament in infants between the ages of 3 and 12
months. Parents indicate on a 7-point scale (never to always) how frequently their
infants responded to events (e.g., visiting a new place) in speciﬁc ways during the
past week. An initial evaluation of the IBQ-R supports the reliability and validity of
the instrument (Gartstein & Rothbart, 2003).
Results are presented in the following order. First, the sample is described in terms of
attachment classiﬁcation. Second, preliminary analyses conducted to examine any
Attachment & Human Development 353
confounding variables are presented. Third, the sample is described in terms of
infant and mother nighttime behaviors. Finally, the central study hypotheses
regarding the diﬀerences in the ways secure and insecure mother–infant dyads
interact at night are presented.
Sixty-one percent (N¼27) of the infants were classiﬁed secure in the Strange
Situation, 27% (N¼12) were classiﬁed disorganized, 7% (N¼3) were classiﬁed
resistant, and 5% (N¼2) were classiﬁed avoidant. Of the infants classiﬁed
disorganized, 5 had secondary secure classiﬁcations, 6 had secondary resistant
classiﬁcations, and 1 had a secondary avoidant classiﬁcation. To allow suﬃcient
power to detect diﬀerences, attachment was considered as a dichotomous variable.
Thus, 61% (N¼27) were classiﬁed secure and 39% percent (N¼17) were classiﬁed
insecure (avoidant, resistant, or disorganized).
Preliminary analyses were conducted to examine associations between attachment
and temperament. T-tests of maternal perceived temperament (ﬁve subscales) and
attachment at 12 months showed no signiﬁcant diﬀerences for secure and insecure
dyads (see Table 2). In addition, temperament was not correlated with either the
infants’ rate of signaling their distress after an awakening or the overall pattern of
nighttime interaction. Clear signaling was correlated with two temperament
subscales (Distress to Limitations .339 and Fear .341). Compared with insecure
infants, more secure infants had mothers who were their main caregivers during the
(1, N¼44) ¼6.04, p¼.01. No other associations between demo-
graphic variables and attachment were signiﬁcant.
Infant and mother behaviors at night
Infant and mother nighttime behaviors are described in ﬁve areas: how infants are
put to sleep at bedtime, how often infants wake in their cribs during the night, how
often infants signal their awakenings by fussing or crying, how often mothers
respond to the infants’ signaled awakenings, and whether infants are taken into the
parents’ bed after an awakening (see Table 3). First, mothers reported on whether or
not they stayed with their babies until the infants had fallen asleep at bedtime for
each of the three nights of observation. Thirty-ﬁve percent reported staying all three
Table 2. Preliminary analyses of associations between attachment and temperament.
Temperament subscales Secure (N¼27) Insecure (N¼17)
1. Distress to limitations M ¼3.66 M ¼3.26
2. Fear M ¼3.11 M ¼2.89
3. Soothability M ¼5.22 M ¼5.33
4. Cuddliness M ¼5.59 M ¼5.60
5. Smiling and laughing M ¼5.36 M ¼5.46
354 E. Higley and M. Dozier
nights, 9% stayed two nights, 4% stayed one night, and 48% never stayed. Second,
the number of awakenings observed across the three nights while babies slept in their
cribs ranged from 0 to 11 (N¼44, M¼3.77, SD ¼2.78). Third, the number of
times babies were observed across the three nights to signal that they were awake by
fussing or crying ranged from 0 to10 (N¼41, M¼3.12, SD ¼2.69). Fourth, the
number of times mothers were observed across the three nights to respond to babies
who signaled their awakening with fussing or crying ranged from 0 to 9 (N¼34,
M¼2.8, SD ¼2.56). Finally, 75% of mothers (N¼33) reported that they never
brought their babies into their beds after an awakening and 25% (N¼11) reported
taking their babies into their beds at least one of the three nights. There were no
diﬀerences between secure and insecure dyads in any of these behaviors.
Mother–infant nighttime interactions
Clear signaling of awakenings
It was hypothesized that secure infants would be more likely than insecure infants to
signal their awakenings clearly. There were no signiﬁcant diﬀerences in the
percentage of infants who signaled clearly as a function of attachment, w
N¼44) ¼3.20, p¼.07, although the percentage of infants who signaled clearly
tended to be higher for securely attached than insecurely attached infants. For the
securely attached infants, 63% were ‘‘clear signalers’’ and 37% were ‘‘not clear
signalers.’’ For the insecurely attached infants, 35% were ‘‘clear signalers’’ and 65%
were ‘‘not clear signalers’’ (see Table 4).
Patterns of mother–infant nighttime interaction
To investigate the hypothesis that secure infants are more likely to have consistent,
sensitive, responsive maternal behavior during nighttime interactions than insecure
infants, a 2 (attachment classiﬁcation: secure vs. insecure) x 4 (pattern of nighttime
interaction: no wake/no signal vs. no response vs. pick up/soothe vs. multiple
Table 3. Ranges, means, standard deviations and percentages for infant and mother
behaviors during night wakings.
Variable (observed across the three nights) Min. Max. M SD %
1. Percent of mothers who put babies to bed awake 48
2. Number of infant awakenings in crib 0 11 3.77 2.78
3. Number of signaled awakenings in crib 0 10 3.12 2.69
4. Number of caregiver responses to signaled awakenings 0 9 2.8 2.56
5. Percent of mothers who took babies into
their beds after an awakening at least one night
Table 4. Clear signaling of awakenings in securely and insecurely attached infants.
Clear signaling of awakenings Secure dyads (N¼27) Insecure dyads (N¼17)
Infants who signal clearly 17 (14.1) 6 (8.9)
Infants who do not signal clearly 10 (12.9) 11 (8.1)
Attachment & Human Development 355
attempts/inconsistent) Pearson chi-square analysis was performed. The patterns of
nighttime interaction diﬀered by attachment security, w
(3, N¼44) ¼11.04,
p5.01. The results are shown in Table 5 and Figure 1.
Secondary analyses were performed to identify which patterns of nighttime
interaction diﬀerentiated secure and insecure dyads. A series of chi-square goodness
of ﬁt tests were performed. The results indicated that securely and insecurely
attached dyads diﬀered signiﬁcantly for the ‘‘pick up/soothe’’ pattern of nighttime
(1, N¼14) ¼7.14, p5.01, with the mothers of secure infants more
likely to pick up and soothe infants who woke and signaled. For the ‘‘no wake/no
signal,’’ ‘‘no response,’’ ‘‘multiple attempts/inconsistent’’ patterns, the results were as
(1, N¼10) ¼.40, p¼.53, w
(1, N¼10) ¼3.6, p¼.06, w
N¼10) ¼1.6, p¼.21, respectively.
The purpose of this study was to investigate the diﬀerences between secure and
insecure mother–infant dyads in the way they interact at night when infants are 12
Table 5. Patterns of nighttime interactions in secure and insecure dyads.
Patterns of nighttime interactions
Number of infants who do not wake or signal 4 (6.1) 6 (3.9)
Number of infants who signal and no one responds 8 (6.1) 2 (3.9)
Number of infants who signal and are
picked up or soothed in crib
12 (8.6) 2 (5.4)
Number of infants who signal and caregiver
responds with multiple attempts or inconsistently
3 (6.1) 7 (3.9)
Figure 1. Patterns of mother–infant nighttime interactions for secure and insecure dyads.
356 E. Higley and M. Dozier
months old. Patterns of nighttime interaction were signiﬁcantly diﬀerent for secure
and insecure dyads. The interactions most characteristic of secure dyads involved
infants signaling their awakenings with fussing or crying and mothers responding
quickly by picking up and soothing the baby. These interactions were usually
smooth, the responses were generally in tune with the baby’s signals, and the
methods of responding were similar from one awakening to the next.
To further explore diﬀerences in nighttime interactions between secure and
insecure dyads, each pattern of interaction was examined independently. First,
comparisons were made between securely and insecurely attached infants who never
woke or never signaled distress. There were no signiﬁcant diﬀerences. In other words,
‘‘good sleepers’’ (i.e., infants who do not disturb their parents during the night either
because they never wake or they never make their awakenings known to their
parents by fussing or crying) are not signiﬁcantly more likely to be securely attached
than insecurely attached. Second, comparisons were made between mothers in secure
and insecure dyads who generally did not respond to their infants’ signaled
awakenings. There were no signiﬁcant diﬀerences, although mothers in secure dyads
were more likely to use the ‘‘no response’’ pattern of interaction than mothers in
insecure dyads. Third, comparisons were made between mothers in secure and
insecure dyads who generally picked up and soothed their infants when they woke
and fussed or cried. As expected, mothers of secure infants were signiﬁcantly more
likely to be characterized by the ‘‘pick up/soothe’’ pattern of interaction than
mothers of insecurely attached infants. Finally, comparisons were made between
mothers in secure and insecure dyads who generally made multiple soothing
attempts or were inconsistent in terms of the ways they responded across all
awakenings. There were no signiﬁcant diﬀerences between mothers in secure and
insecure dyads. Thus, the overall ﬁnding that the patterns of nighttime interaction
vary by attachment classiﬁcation is due to mothers in secure dyads being more likely
to pick up and soothe their infants when the infants wake and fuss or cry during the
night as compared to mothers in insecure dyads.
In terms of how infants signaled their awakenings, diﬀerences were in the
direction of securely attached infants signaling their awakenings more clearly than
insecurely attached infants, but the diﬀerence was not signiﬁcant. The power to
detect diﬀerences was weak in this study. It is plausible that diﬀerences would have
reached signiﬁcance with a larger sample size. However, it is also possible that the
expected association between attachment and clear signaling does not exist.
Viewed in light of attachment theory and research, the results of the present
study can be interpreted as showing that consistent, sensitive responses to infant
signals of distress relate to attachment security, even at night. In other words,
mothers of securely and insecurely attached infants are not diﬀerent in terms of how
frequently they respond to their infants’ signaled awakenings; they are diﬀerent in
that, when they respond, mothers of securely attached infants are more likely to
respond sensitively and consistently. In a meta-analysis on parental antecedents of
infant attachment, De Wolﬀand van IJzendoorn (1997) found that sensitivity (i.e.,
the ability to perceive the infant’s signals accurately and respond promptly and
appropriately) is a better predictor of attachment than contiguity of response (i.e.,
the promptness or frequency of the mother’s responses, not taking into account
appropriateness). This may explain why this present study found associations
between attachment and the quality of mothers’ responses to awakenings, but not
their frequency of responding.
Attachment & Human Development 357
van IJzendoorn and Hubbard (2000) found that mothers of avoidant infants
actually picked up their crying infants more quickly than other mothers. Although
the number of avoidant infants in our study was too small (n¼2) to allow speciﬁc
comparisons, the van IJzendoorn and Hubbard ﬁnding is interesting to consider as
related to our ﬁndings more generally. van IJzendoorn and Hubbard interpreted
their ﬁndings to suggest that mothers whose infants are avoidantly attached to them
may pick them up ‘‘too quickly’’ because of discomfort in hearing the cry. A lack of
power did not allow a full test of this possibility.
It is interesting to compare this data set with the ﬁndings from prior studies of
attachment and sleep. In terms of bedtime settling practices, about half (52%) of the
mothers reported staying with their babies until babies fell asleep at bedtime. Thus,
putting 12-month-old babies to bed asleep is common despite cautions against such
practices. Furthermore, whether mothers helped their infants transition to sleep was
not related to attachment, which is consistent with the ﬁndings of prior studies
(Scher & Asher, 2004). In terms of night waking, the majority of infants (93%) had
at least one night waking during the three nights of observation. Scher (2001)
reported that more than 50% of the 12-month-olds were classiﬁed as nightwakers. In
the present study, the rate of waking did not relate to attachment security. Although
some prior studies reported that insecure 12-month-olds were more likely to awaken
(Seifer et al., 1996), that ﬁnding was based on maternal report from a sample of
mothers with mental illness. In studies that used community samples (Scher, 2001;
Scher & Asher, 2004), security of attachment was not related to frequency of
nightwaking. Thus, it seems that there is not evidence that how often infants wake at
night is related to attachment, at least in a low-risk sample.
Limitations and future directions
This study has several limitations that limit generalization of the results. First, the
sample was small, self-selected and consisted mostly of upper-middle class non-
Hispanic white mothers. Second, the cross-sectional design does not allow for an
examination of whether and how mother–infant interactions changed over time.
Third, the digital video recordings captured only those interactions that occurred
while infants were in their cribs. Thus, how mothers and infants interacted when
babies were out of their cribs or whether mothers responded diﬀerently oﬀcamera or
during nights other than the three that were recorded is not known. Finally, the rate
of disorganized attachment (27%) was high for this low-risk sample. In typical,
middle class families, about 15% of infants develop disorganized attachments (van
IJzendoorn, Schuengel, & Bakersmans-Kranenburg, 1999). Mothers were recruited
largely by word of mouth and told that the purpose of the study was to learn more
about what mothers do at night, how their babies sleep, and how it relates to
mother–infant interactions during the day. It is not clear why the majority of the
infants classiﬁed as insecure were disorganized, but it may be that the ﬁndings only
relate to disorganized attachment.
Nonetheless, this study provides important new information about the
diﬀerences in the patterns of interactions between secure and insecure mother–
infant dyads. A prospective, longitudinal study needs to be conducted with larger
samples to verify and expand on these patterns and to help in understanding how
these patterns develop over time. A larger sample would also provide the power to
evaluate how diﬀerent attachment classiﬁcations relate to patterns of nighttime
358 E. Higley and M. Dozier
interaction. Future research should include measures that allow for an examination
of the consistency between daytime and nighttime interactions in terms of sensitivity
and attachment. To do so, it may be necessary to observe mothers and infants during
the day in somewhat stressful contexts that trigger the attachment system (Smith &
In conclusion, this study examined the association between attachment quality and
mother–infant interaction at night. It combined the well-established assessment of
attachment (i.e., Ainsworth’s Strange Situation) with new digital video technology
that captured naturalistic mother and infant interactions during the night in real-
time with minimal disruption. The focus was on observing the interactions of a low-
risk community sample as opposed to those seeking treatment for a perceived sleep
problem in their infants.
The primary ﬁnding was that mothers of securely attached infants had nighttime
interactions that were generally more consistent, sensitive and responsive than those
of insecurely attached infants. Speciﬁcally, in secure dyads, mothers generally picked
up and soothed infants when they woke and fussed or cried. In insecure dyads,
mothers generally made multiple soothing attempts and tended to be inconsistent in
terms of the methods of responding they used across all awakenings. Secure and
insecure dyads did not diﬀer signiﬁcantly in terms of whether there was generally no
contact between mothers and infants during the night or whether mothers generally
soothed infants during the night. This study suggests that, at least in terms of
attachment security, it is not simply whether the infant wakes or whether the mother
responds to the infant’s fussing or crying during awakenings, but rather, for those
mothers who generally do respond, whether the response is sensitive, consistent and
in tune with the baby’s needs.
This research was supported in part by National Institutes of Mental Health grants 52135 and
74374 to the second author. We thank Elizabeth Peloso for her help developing the
methodology and the families who participated in the study.
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Code Catalog for Nighttime Interaction
This is a description of the steps involved in coding the nighttime videos used to calculate
agreement between observers. Observers need to show agreement in two ways:
(1) Observers need to code each awakening with the same method of responding.
(2) Observers need to code each dyad with the same overall classiﬁcation for mother–
infant pattern of nighttime interaction.
Step 1: Nighttime Video Coding
Watch the video and complete one ‘‘Nighttime Video Coding’’ sheet for each of the three
nights of video. Refer to the accompanying ‘‘Nighttime Diary’’ that mothers completed.
(1) Dates (e.g., 8/16 – 8/17) (night of the 16
into morning of the 17
(2) Night (i.e., 1, 2, or 3)
(3) ID # (i.e., child’s subject code)
(1) Time in crib (hr:min) (time baby is put in the crib)
(2) Who put baby to bed (Mom, Dad, Other) (may need to refer to mother’s diary)
(3) Stays until asleep (Yes/No) (whether the mom reports staying until the baby fell asleep
(4) Baby cried before falling asleep (Yes/No/N/A) (If mom does not stay until asleep,
indicate whether the baby cries in their crib before falling asleep)
(5) Brief description of bedtime interaction
An awakening is deﬁned as a transition from sleep to waking. According to Hayes (2002),
‘‘an awakening is behaviourally deﬁned when the individual engages in conscious behaviors
that reﬂect awareness of their surroundings such as eyes open, talking, or positional and motor
movements incompatible with sleep (sitting up, walking, etc) . . .’’ (p. 25). Awakenings last at
least 1–2 minutes.
(1) Conﬁdence (how conﬁdent you are that the baby is awake)
(a) not sure awake
(b) probably awake
(c) deﬁnitely awake
(2) Time awake (hr:min:sec)
(3) Vocalization (any sound emitted by baby)
(a) No vocalization
(b) Mild vocalization (whines/whimpers/grunts/coos/babbles/brief cry noise)
(c) Signals distress (Fusses/Cries)
(4) Responder (Mom, Dad, Other, No one) and time (time response occurred)
(5) Latency to respond to cry (how many minutes the baby fussed/cried before the
caregiver responded. Round to the nearest half minute.)
(6) Stays until asleep (Yes, No, N/A) (whether the mother reports staying until baby falls
back to sleep)
Attachment & Human Development 361
(7) If no, does baby cry (Yes, No, N/A) (If caregiver does not stay until back to sleep,
indicate whether the baby cries)
(8) Describe awakening (write a brief description of the awakening. Include times where
(1) Total # of awakenings (only those awakenings coded ‘‘probably’’ or ‘‘deﬁnitely’’
(2) Time woke up in the morning
(3) Time out of crib for that night
Step 2: Code Each Soothing Attempt per Awakening
For each awakening (that is considered probably or deﬁnitely awake), record the following
information on a spreadsheet:
(1) Subject code
(2) Night (1,2,3) – which night the awakening occurred
(3) Time (hr:min) – time of the awakening
(4) Signals distress (Yes, No) – whether the baby signaled distress (fussed/cried)
(5) Responder (Mom, Dad, No one) – who responded to the awakening (exclude
awakenings when someone other than parent responded)
(6) Return (#) – the number of times caregiver had to return to perform more soothing
attempts for that awakening
(7) Latency (min) – how many minutes the baby fussed/cried before the caregiver
responded. (Round to the nearest half minute)
(8) R1 – R6 (or more if needed) – assign one of the following 5 codes for each soothing
attempt performed during that awakening:
(1) no response/let cry
(2) stands by crib (no touch)
(3) resettles (repositions baby, lays baby back down, give paciﬁer/cuddly, cover with
(4) pats/rubs back, belly or head
(5) picks up
Step 3: Assign One Method of Responding per Signaled Awakening
Describe the method of responding (based on R1 – R5 from Step 2) using the following codes:
(1) no response/let cry (when no one responds to baby’s signal of distress during an
(2) let cry/soothe (1 to 2,3,4,5) (for caregivers who let infants cry at least 5 min and then
respond with either picking up or soothing in crib)
(3) soothe in crib (2,3,4) (when standing by crib, resettling, and/or rubbing back are the
ﬁrst and only response)
(4) pick up (5) (when picking up is the ﬁrst and only response)
(5) increasing physical contact (2,3,4 to 5) (to begin with soothing in crib and then to pick up)
(6) multiple soothing strategies/no clear pattern (for caregivers who make 4 or more
attempts at soothing or those who make fewer soothing attempts that do not ﬁt within
the above methods)
Step 4: Assign a Summary Code for the Pattern of Nighttime Interaction
Assign each dyad one of the following overall pattern of nighttime interaction codes according
to the caregiver’s most frequently used method of response (from Step 3) across the three nights.
(1) no wake/no signal (babies who never wake and/or never signal distress during
awakenings across the three nights of observation)
362 E. Higley and M. Dozier
(2) no response (the most frequent response to signaling distress during awakenings is no
(3) pick up/soothe (the most frequent response to signaling distress during awakenings is
either 3, 4, or 5 from step 3)
(4) multiple attempts/inconsistent (either 6 is the most frequent response or a mixture of
1–6 is used such that no one method predominates)
Attachment & Human Development 363