Parenting Supports for Early Vocabulary Development: Specific Effects of Sensitivity and Stimulation through Infancy

Claire D. Vallotton, Ann Mastergeorge, Tricia Foster, Kalli B. Decker, Catherine Ayoub

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

50 Scopus citations


Growing recognition of disparities in early childhood language environments prompts examination of parent–child interactions, which support vocabulary. Research links parental sensitivity and cognitive stimulation to child language, but has not explicitly contrasted their effects, nor examined how effects may change over time. We examined maternal sensitivity and stimulation throughout infancy using two observational methods—ratings of parents’ interaction qualities and coding of discrete parenting behaviors—to assess the relative importance of these qualities to child vocabulary over time and determine whether mothers make related changes in response to children's development. Participants were 146 infants and mothers, assessed when infants were 14, 24, and 36 months. At 14 months, sensitivity had a stronger effect on vocabulary than did stimulation, but the effect of stimulation grew throughout toddlerhood. Mothers’ cognitive stimulation grew over time, whereas sensitivity remained stable. While discrete parenting behaviors changed with child age, there was no evidence of trade-offs between sensitive and stimulating behaviors, and no evidence that sensitivity moderated the effect of stimulation on child vocabulary. Findings demonstrate specificity of timing in the link between parenting qualities and child vocabulary, which could inform early parent interventions, and support a reconceptualization of the nature and measurement of parental sensitivity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)78-107
Number of pages30
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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