Study says children of working moms have poorer verbal and mental development

Wednesday, July 17th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

The children of mothers who go to work full time before the youngsters are 9 months old have poorer mental and verbal development at age 3 than those with stay-at-home mothers, Columbia University researchers report.

Researchers measured the cognitive and verbal development of children at various ages and found lower scores for 3-year-olds whose mothers took jobs working 30 hours per week or more before the child was 9 months old.

But Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, one of the study authors, cautions mothers not to panic about the findings.

``There are effects but they are not huge effects. Your child's life will not be ruined,'' she said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

The study results are reported in the July-August issue of the journal Child Development.

Important contributors to the children's development also included the quality of child care, the home environment and the sensitivity of the mother, the researchers found.

Even after taking these factors into account, the researchers found lower cognitive development for the children of mothers who worked full time during their child's first nine months.

Children's mental and verbal development was measured at 15, 24 and 36 months.

For mothers who went to work full time in the child's first nine months there was no significant effect on the child at 15 months or 24 months. But at 36 months the children of working mothers had lower scores.

The team found that this effect was reduced for mothers who were more sensitive to their children and for those who had better child care.

``By sensitivity we mean being responsive to the baby,'' Brooks-Gunn said. ``If the baby needs comforting, the mother is comforting. If it's active, she's talking and playing with him. It means responding to where the child is.''

She said that ``having a very sensitive mother does minimize the negative effects we saw.'' Also important is quality child care, she said.

``The things I would say to mothers are be highly sensitive when you are with the baby and get the best child care you can afford.'' The best care is to have one caregiver to one or two infants, she said, although she acknowledged that can be expensive.

She added a plea to American business and to the government to do more with family leave policies so women can delay going back to work or ca return part time.

The study also found that the effect of having a mother working full time before nine months was greater for boys than girls and for children in married families rather than single mothers.

Brooks-Gunn said she was very surprised that children of married couples were more affected than those of single mothers.

``I found it in a couple of studies, so its probably real. I'm not sure what it's due to,'' she said.

Brooks-Gunn is a professor at Columbia Teachers College. Her co-authors Jane Waldfogel and Wen-Jui Han are professors at Columbia University's School of Social Work.