Maternal sensitivity during mealtime and free play: Differences and explanatory factors

Merel S. van Vliet*, Judi Mesman, Janneke M. Schultink, Carel M.J.L. Vereijken, Vanessa E.G. Martens, Shelley M.C. van der Veek

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


Mealtime is a parent–toddler interaction that occurs multiple times a day. This study examined whether observed maternal sensitivity differed between a mealtime and free-play setting, aiming to explain differences between the two situations by studying moderating effects of children's eating behavior. The sample consisted of 103 first-time mothers and their 18-month-old children. Maternal sensitivity was assessed by coding videotaped interactions of free-play sessions and mealtimes, using the Ainsworth Sensitivity Scale (range 1–9). Additionally, child eating behavior during the meal was coded and also assessed through the Child Eating Behavior Questionnaire—Toddlers. First, a small but significant amount of stability was found between sensitivity during mealtime and sensitivity during play (r = 0.24). Second, mothers were more sensitive during free play (mean = 7.11) than during mealtime (mean = 6.52). Third, observed child eating behavior was related to maternal sensitivity during mealtime, with more food enjoyment being associated with higher levels of sensitivity, and more challenging child behavior with lower levels of sensitivity. Finally, when children showed a high degree of challenging behavior during the meal, there was more discrepancy between sensitivity during mealtime and free play. Our results highlight the importance of taking context into account when observing parental sensitivity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)630-644
Number of pages15
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 25 Mar 2022


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