• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Wednesday 12th June, 2013

In low-income, minority families, babies may benefit from mothers returning to work early

strong>An increasing number of low-income mothers need to work after their child’s birth to make ends meet. A US study up-ends the conventional wisdom: having mom at work may actually be good for the kids’ social development. A controversial study has found that children from disadvantaged families do not suffer from their mothers returning to work early. In fact, they were emotionally better adjusted at age seven than similar children whose mothers did not work during the first two years of their life.The findings come from long-term follow-ups of a representative sample of 2,400 low-income children and their mothers in three US cities: Boston, Massachusetts; Chicago, Illinois; and San Antonio, Texas. Of course, mothers can’t randomly be assigned to return to work or stay at home. So researchers from Boston College used analytical techniques to create two groups that were as similar as possible on other factors that might affect both mothers’ decision to return to work and children’s development, such as maternal education level, marital status, prior work history, child developmental delay, and family income.The resulting matched sample of 444 infants and their mothers were almost entirely African American (42%) or Hispanic (55%), over half of them were living below the poverty line, and only about one fourth of the mothers were married. Mothers who worked had better-adjusted children There was no indication that mothers returning to work before the infant was two years old was detrimental to the children’s cognitive development as measured by reading and math skills at age seven. Further, children whose mothers had returned to work before they were two years old had significantly lower levels of anxiety problems, physical health problems, and conduct problems; in addition, early maternal employment predicted marginally lower hyperactivity problems. Whether mothers were working part-time or full-time or whether they returned to work before their infant was 9 months old or 9-24 months old did not make a difference to the overall results. What did have an effect was the type of childcare. Informal home-based childcare – such as being looked after by relatives – was linked to the positive emotional and behavioral adjustment of children whose mothers had returned to work. Up-ending the conventional wisdomMuch previous research has found that infant development suffers when mothers return to work early. Previous studies have also frequently found worse outcomes from informal care than from center-based preschool care. However, previous studies have mostly focused on middle-class white families. This study is different, in that it involves children and mothers from low-income non-white backgrounds. Families living below the poverty line will gain from mothers returning to work in terms of reduced financial strain and greater food security. The authors also speculate that the large extended family networks typical of African American and Hispanic communities in the US may help to support mothers returning to work, particularly in terms of informal childcare arrangements. All of these factors could lead to happier mothers and happier, better adjusted babies.This is welcome news especially for low-income US mothers who often need to go back to work soon after their baby’s birth because of a lack of paid maternity leave. As the authors state, “In this context of very limited economic and social resources, early maternal employment may have increased families’ income and in-kind benefits (such as access to health care and child-care subsidies), improved mothers’ self-esteem and mental health, and supported children’s access to enriching care settings.” The results cannot be generalized to other demographic groups. But in these particular cases, a mother’s return to work may create a better environment for the child than the alternative.**********References:Coley, R.L, & C.M. Lombardi. (2013). Does Maternal Employment Following Childbirth Support or Inhibit Low-Income Children’s Long-Term Development? Child Development, 84(1), 178–197.

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