The science behind the new practice of responsive, sensitive parenting

By Ronald Ruff, Raising Children to Thrive: Affect Hunger and Responsive, Sensitive Parenting

Today we possess the scientific knowledge to help parents and caregivers “know better and do better.” Major breakthroughs in neuroscience and the integration of these revolutionary findings with theoretical psychological formulations give us a comprehensive understanding of the newborn infant. Previous long-held beliefs have been discarded, and the account of the human infant’s development based on philosophy and medical and psychological sciences has been rewritten. We now know that a newborn has innate mental capacities. Shortly after birth, infants reveal cultural intelligence and the motivation of innate intersubjective sympathy. What this means is that human beings are born to generate shifting states of self-awareness, to show them to other people, and to provoke interest and affectionate responses.

This new developmental and functional neuroscience of the human brain contradicts former experts who claimed that infants knew nothing and were incapable of acting. The philosopher René Descartes theorized that the individual self is all that can be known to exist. Such solipsism and belief that “only my mind exists” has been replaced with the “self born in intersubjectivity.” Sigmund Freud and Jean Piaget, who posited that a newborn was a tabula rasa, or empty slate, likewise have been proven wrong. And the primary viewpoint of behaviorists who focus on externally observed actions has been supplanted by theory of mind and intersubjectivity. Such a psychological perspective of the newborn’s innate potential for early social and emotional awareness, human communication, and interaction reveals the opportunity to significantly enrich your child’s psychological development, beginning at birth.

In my forthcoming book, Raising Children to Thrive, I present responsive, sensitive parenting as the best evidence-based practice model for parents to facilitate their child’s healthy social, emotional, and overall psychological development. John Bowlby, MD, psychiatrist, noted in his formulation of attachment theory that responsive, sensitive parenting refers to family interactions in which parents are aware of their child’s emotional and physical needs and respond appropriately and consistently. Sensitive parents are in tune with their children. Successful parenting means respecting your child as a unique individual with a mind of their own. As the best-practice model for responding to your child’s innate intersubjective motives and capabilities, responsive, sensitive parenting serves as the surest way to provide your child with the social and emotional stimulation and back-and-forth interactions he or she needs.

Securely attached mothers are more attuned to their babies than mothers who are insecurely attached. Secure mothers attune to a range of infant affect, whereas insecure mothers tend not to attune to negative affect. Children who receive responsive, sensitive care from their parents form more secure attachment relationships and possess a greater capacity to manage stress. Such an attachment is critical in the child’s development of resilience.

Responsive, sensitive parenting is the best-practice model for a child’s mother,

father, and other significant caregivers. It provides the quintessential care necessary to satiate the infant’s innate hunger for affect, nurturance, love, security, warmth, and safety. In fact, as I discuss in my book, affective neuroscience confirms that both infants’ and mothers’ brains are wired for interrelatedness, responsiveness, and human-to-human bonding. In short, responsive, sensitive parenting satisfies the child’s innate need to physically and emotionally attach to his or her mother, father, or primary caregiver at birth.

         The new science of child development underscores the importance of the emotional domain in responsive, sensitive parenting in early child development and future optimal development. Responsive, sensitive parenting helps to form the child’s initial sense of affectivity and serves as the foundation for forthcoming cognitive and brain development. In my book, I focus on the widely accepted primary principle of attachment, and the caregiver’s affective-emotional style. The key attributes associated with positive parenting and secure attachment include warmth and nurturance, which are combined with the parent’s capacity to read their child’s cues and to accept and treat their child as a unique individual with their own mind and needs.

          Responsive, sensitive parenting is more than just a childcare model—it is a new paradigm for parents who are ready to reimagine the nature of the parent-infant relationship, significantly boost their children’s social and emotional development, and raise children to thrive.


Ronald Ruff, Ph.D. received a B.A. in Psychology with French studies from Oberlin College, an M.S. in Counseling Psychology from George Williams College, and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Illinois Institute of Technology. During his forty-eight years of practice, he has had extensive experience in psychological treatment, assessment, and consultation in health care, education, government, judicial systems, training, teaching, and research. Dr. Ruff has conducted individual, group, family, and marital therapy and psychological evaluations within outpatient and inpatient psychiatric hospital settings, and has considerable experience working with culturally, racially, educationally, and socioeconomically diverse populations. His new book, Raising Children to Thrive: Affect Hunger and Responsive, Sensitive Parenting, comes out June 11, 2024.