Effects of a learned helplessness task and infant temperment on mothers' responsivity to infant cry sounds

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Virginia Tech


Mothers' susceptibility to the effects of learned helplessness as a function of the perception of her own infants' temperament and exposure to varying degrees of control over infant crying was explored. Seventysix mothers were classified as having a difficult or easy infant based upon ratings of their infant on the Infant Characteristics Questionnaire. Using an adaptation of the learned helplessness paradigm, a relatively equal number of mothers from each group were exposed to an escape, inescape, or control pretreatment condition and subsequently tested on a solvable shuttle box task. Mothers of easy infants who were pretreated with inescapable crying demonstrated more failures and trials to criterion than mothers of easy infants in the escape and control conditions. In contrast, mothers of difficult infants did not demonstrate performance differences across the 3 pretreatment conditions. Mothers of difficult infants performed significantly better on the shuttle box task than mothers of easy infants following exposure to uncontrollable crying. Mothers of difficult and easy infants did not differ on measures of depression, perceptions of control over adult-child interactions, and potential for child abuse. Mothers did not respond more rapidly to the cries produced by unfamiliar difficult or easy infants. Findings suggest mothers of difficult infants may initially be less adept at terminating infant crying, but are more resilient to these failure experiences. Indeed, mothers of difficult infants responded more effectively following exposure to uncontrollable infant cry sounds. Results are discussed in terms of the importance of mothers' perceptions of their different caregiving experiences in mediating their responsivity to salient infant cues.