Dissecting maternal care: Patterns of maternal parenting in a prospective cohort study

J Neuroendocrinol. 2019 Sep;31(9):e12784. doi: 10.1111/jne.12784. Epub 2019 Sep 10.


Parental care has a strong impact on neurodevelopment and mental health in the offspring. Although numerous animal studies have revealed that the parental brain is a highly complex system involving many brain structures and neuroendocrine systems, human maternal parenting as a multidimensional construct with cognitive, emotional, and behavioural components has not been characterised comprehensively. This unique multi-method analysis aimed to examine patterns of self-reported and observed parenting from 6 to 60 months postpartum in a cohort of 496 mothers (mean maternal age = 32 years). Self-report questionnaires assessed motivational components of mothering, parenting stress, parenting-related mood, maternal investment, maternal parenting style, mother-child relationship satisfaction, and mother-child bonding at multiple time points. Observed parenting variables included the Ainsworth Sensitivity Scales at 6 and 18 months, the Behavioral Evaluation Strategies Taxonomies at 6 months, an Etch-A-Sketch cooperation task at 48 months, and the Parent-Child Early Relationship Assessment at 60 months. To examine whether different latent constructs underlie these measures of maternal parenting, we conducted an exploratory factor analysis. Self-report measures of parenting correlated only weakly with behavioural observations. Factor analysis on a subsample (n = 197) revealed four latent factors that each explained from 7% to 11% of the variance in the data (32% total variance explained). Based on the loadings of the instruments, the factors were interpreted as: Supportive Parenting, Self-Enjoyment Parenting, Overwhelmed Parenting, and Affectionate Parenting. These factor scores showed specific associations with maternal education and depressive symptoms, as well as with child outcomes, including maternally reported internalising and externalising behavioural problems, school readiness, and child-reported symptoms of mental health. These findings parallel the complexity of the parental brain, suggesting that maternal parenting consists of multiple components, each of which is associated with different maternal characteristics and child outcomes.

Keywords: child development; maternal behaviour; maternal cognition; maternal mood; maternal motivation; mother-child interactions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Maternal Behavior / psychology*
  • Mother-Child Relations*
  • Mothers / psychology*
  • Parenting / psychology*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Self Report
  • Young Adult

Grant support