There is no one style of parenting which characterizes young mothers as a group. In addition, life circumstances play an important role in shaping maternal behaviour. The aim of this study was to identify patterns of maternal play behaviour and contextual (social and personal) factors associated with these different patterns. In this study, 107 young mothers were observed at home during play with their toddlers; maternal behaviour was coded for joint attention (shared focus of mother and toddler attention) and emotional availability (e.g. sensitivity, intrusiveness, hostility). Mothers reported on aspects of their childhood history and current personal functioning and social support. A person-centred analytic approach, using cluster analysis, revealed three distinct groups of maternal play behaviour: (1) ‘sensitive-engaged’ (2) ‘inconsistent-directive,’ and (3) ‘intrusive-prohibitive’. Multivariate analyses revealed that contextual factors in mothers' lives (e.g. childhood abuse, depressive symptomatology, partner violence, social support, and parenting self-confidence) were differentially associated with parenting clusters. Copyright © 2007 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.