AUSTIN, Texas—When mothers spend time away from home at a job or school, their infants’ development does not suffer, according to a large study led by a researcher at The University of Texas at Austin.
By evaluating mothers’ time use, the home environment, maternal bonding and other characteristics for 1,053 mothers with babies across the United States, the researchers in a longitudinal study concluded that mothers’ personalities, beliefs and circumstances influenced the quality of parenting, overshadowing the influence of sheer amount of time spent with their children.
“The amount of time isn’t as important as what she brings to the relationship,” said Dr. Aletha Huston, the study’s director and the Priscilla Pond Flawn Regents Professor in Child Development at the university. The results were published in the March/April issue of Child Development.
The study is one of few to consider maternal-time use during early infancy, when crucial attachments to care givers are developing. Infants also are thought to learn what to expect of the world from care givers during this time, such as how much they can depend on others.
“The mother is an important source of care then, but she doesn’t have to be there 24 hours a day to build a strong relationship with her child,” Huston said. The findings show that employed and student mothers compensate for time away from home. On average, these moms worked and/or went to school 33 hours a week, but they spent more time with their children on days off, and less time on household chores, leisure and other activities.
Employed and student moms were 71 percent of those studied. During one weekday and one weekend day, they spent an average of eight hours at work or school, but just under two hours less time with their infants, compared to full-time, stay-at-home mothers.
The study was carried out by researchers participating in the longitudinal Study of Early Child Care of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The 1,053 mothers lived in 10 U.S. locations, including Philadelphia, Seattle and Lawrence, Kan. Huston oversaw mother and infant evaluations in Lawrence.
The mothers were 18 or older, did not have low-birth-weight babies and spoke English. They included moms who lacked a high-school education (11 percent), single moms (14 percent), and moms with ethnic minority children (24 percent).
Huston and the other researchers obtained data six times during the first three years of infants’ lives. When a baby was one month old, a mother’s attitudes and beliefs about maternal employment and her maternal role were measured. So were her level of concern about separations from her infant and general parenting beliefs.
When the infants were 6, 15, 24 and 36 months of age, mother-child interactions were videotaped during 15-minute play sessions. At seven months, mothers provided summaries by phone about what they had done during the previous 24 hours for a weekday and for a weekend day. Researchers tested infants’ emotional attachment to their mothers and their cognitive, language and social development at 15, 24 and 36 months.
For both employed and full-time, stay-at-home mothers, certain characteristics were more common among those who spent more non-work time with their babies. These mothers tended to be older, white, better adjusted psychologically, to have fewer children and to have higher anxiety about time spent away from their infant.
Mothers who spent more of their non-work time with their babies also displayed more maternal sensitivity in videotaped interactions with their children, and provided more enriched home environments, Yet, infants bonded equally well with mothers who spent a lot of time and those who spent relatively little time with them. There were also no differences regarding children’s social behavior, cognitive ability and language development for children whose mothers spent different amounts of time with them.
“There are a lot of different ways in which children can be raised well,” Huston said, “including in families where mothers are employed.”
She noted that other adults, including fathers, grandparents and child care providers, play important roles in a child’s development. In future research, Huston said that direct observations of everyday mother-infant interactions are needed, and better information about infants’ experiences when mothers are not present to understand other care givers’ impact.