Quality of mom’s time, not quantity, most important in early infant development

Working mothers in the United States can relax. Their kids might still get into Harvard. A study from researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found no differences in children’s social and intellectual development during the first three years of life between those whose mothers spent a lot of time with them in infancy and those whose mothers spent less time because they worked outside the home. The results were published in the March/April 2005 issue of the journal Child Development.

The findings are significant because more than half of American infants have mothers who are employed at least part-time during their child’s first year of life. Many psychologists and parents worry that the time mothers spend away from their babies when at work detracts from mothers’ ability to be sensitive to their babies’ needs and to provide cognitive stimulation to their children.

Aletha C. Huston, PhD, and Stacey Rosenkrantz Aronson, PhD, analyzed 24-hour diaries of time use from 1,053 mothers of infants collected in the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care. They also examined videotaped observations of mothers interacting with their babies to measure how sensitive mothers were to their children’s needs and visited the mothers’ homes to observe the quality of the home environment.

They found that although mothers who were employed spent less time with their infants than nonemployed mothers, the employed women compensated by spending more time with their children on weekends and decreasing the time spent in housework, leisure, outside organizations, travel, and social activities. As expected, mothers who spent more of their available time with their babies (regardless of employment status) were slightly more sensitive and provided higher quality home environments, but mothers’ personalities, beliefs, and family circumstances were much more important than time as predictors of their parenting.

Overall, the researchers found, whether or not mothers worked during their child’s first three years had no effect on their child’s social and intellectual development during those three years.

“The amount of time that mothers spend with their babies and at work are not the critical determinants of strong, positive mother-child relationships,” said Dr. Huston. “Instead, mothers’ personality characteristics, beliefs, and family circumstances affect both time allocation and parenting behavior. Mothers who give priority to spending time with their infants, whether or not they are also employed, are more likely to provide sensitive, high-quality parenting. And almost all of the mothers interacted enough with their children for normal development to occur during the first three years of life.”

From Society for Research in Child Development

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