Working mothers do not harm their children, study finds

August 8, 2010 - 0:0

Mothers who return to work just months after giving birth do not put their baby’s wellbeing at risk, a groundbreaking study has found.

Academics who assessed the total impact of a mother going back to work on a child’s mental and social development found that the positive consequences cancelled out the negatives.
But while mothers who went back to work full time within a year of giving birth did not do any damage, the outcomes for children were most positive when their mothers only worked part time. The findings are in stark contrast to previous research which has suggested that mothers who return to work put their children at risk of a barrage of ill effects.
But academics at Columbia University in the US said their study overturns previous claims because it is the first to examine all the consequences of a mother returning to work, including factors outside the home.
The researchers tracked the development and family characteristics of more than 1,000 children aged up to seven from 10 different parts of the U.S.
As well as examining factors like family relationships and household income, they assessed children’s vocabulary, reading ability and academic test scores, and asked teachers and parents to rate their behavior.
Working mothers had better mental health, were able to build healthier relationships within the family, and boosted the household income – all of which aided the child’s development, the researchers found.
Children whose mothers worked were also likely to benefit from higher-quality childcare outside the home, because their parents could afford to shop around for the best nannies and nursery places.
Though babies suffered some ill effects when their mothers returned to work within a year – such as spending less time interacting with a parent – the researchers found that the net effect on their cognitive and social development over time was neutral.
But children whose mothers worked under 30 hours a week fared the best – benefiting from the increased household income, better childcare and a happier home life, without losing out on parental interaction.
Jane Waldfogel, Professor of social work at Columbia, who co-authored the study, said: “Prior research has asked a somewhat artificial question: if the one thing that changed in a family was that the mother went out to work, what difference would it make for the child?
“But in reality, lots of other things change the minute she goes out to work, including the quality of childcare, the mother’s mental health, the relationships within the family and the household income. We’ve examined all those things.”
A recent study by the Institute for Social and Economic Research at Essex University concluded that children whose mothers went back to work within the first three years were slower learners.
A 2008 study by UNICEF claimed that mothers who went back to work less than a year after giving birth were “gambling” with their children’s development.
But Professor Waldfogel said she hoped that the new study, which was published last week by the Society for Research in Child Development, would reassure working mothers that they are not harming their children.
“The findings reflect what I think many working mothers would say, which is that they have balanced all the different considerations and they feel that they are doing the best thing for their families over all, and yes it’s tough in some ways that they are working, but there are also important benefits that come with that,” she said.
The findings were welcomed by parenting groups. Siobhan Freegard, co-founder of the parenting website Netmums, said every working mother would embrace the results, adding that many moment feel: ""we are doing our best"".
Sally Gimson, of the Family and Parenting Institute, said: ""Women should not feel guilty whatever choices they make – and that does not mean you have to make the choice to work. Often it is the more well-off women who have the choice, while many others have to work.""