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Are tots really OK when mum goes back to work?

November 9th, 2010

by Carolyn Moynihan

One of the most studied aspects of childhood in recent decades is early, non-maternal childcare. Research tends to show benefits for a child’s cognitive development but not for emotional wellbeing and behaviour. Now a study has found that youngsters are less likely to succeed at school if their mothers return to work within a year of their birth.

Researchers at Macalester College, Minnesota, and the University of California reached this conclusion by reviewing 69 separate studies carried out worldwide since the 1960s. They also found significant differences according to class and family structure.

In fact, children of middle class and two-parent families are likely to do worse at school if their mothers return to work during the first three years.

This is because in wealthier families, the benefits of a mother working ‘may not outweigh the negative effects of decreased maternal attention and supervision and risk of poor-quality child-care arrangements’.

However, the researchers found that women from low-income or single parent families [groups which must overlap to a large degree] tend to help their children by returning to work since this provides additional income and reduces stress. This effect allowed the researchers to say:

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  1. Mark
    November 9th, 2010 at 16:08 | #1

    I wonder if this is a lack of a mother or lack of a parent. In other words, are there any studies that look at how kids do if a father stays home and mother goes to work?

  2. nerdygirl
    November 9th, 2010 at 17:22 | #2

    Or even a good baby-sitter. My aunt watched my sister and myself when we were elementary school age. Perhaps if anything this should serve as an endorsement for bringing back the importance of the extended family, or even nannies.

  3. Leland
    November 9th, 2010 at 21:17 | #3


    As someone who has done his share of care-taking for nieces and nephews (and continues to do so, in fact) I could not agree with you more about the importance of extended families – amen!

    But do you feel somewhat more ambivalent about children being reared by nannies the way I do?

    On the one hand, it has to be so much better than day care. However, doesn’t it seem that a thoroughly professional nanny would probably not adequately provide the emotional bond that an infant needs? Often the demands of taking care of other people’s children can make it more difficult for a nanny who is a mother herself to attend to her own children’s needs as well.

    I’m not entirely sure where I come down on that one. I’ll have to think about it some more…

  4. Heidi
    November 10th, 2010 at 06:54 | #4

    Right Mark. I don’t think it’s a gender thing. And even a daycare can be an appropriate setting. The key is the ratio of adults to infants and the quality of the program. Most child care settings are not anywhere near what are considered “quality care,” but the push has been in that direction for many policy makers. At most, a caregiver should only have 2, maybe 3, infants to care for. I’d err on the side of 1-2 infants per caregiver. I wholeheartedly support extended family caregiving though! My mom and sister definitely helped me when my teenager was an infant. She (my daughter) had both experiences–quality daycare and extended family care and turned out beautifully, even with a teenaged mom on welfare during the beginning years of her life.

  5. Ruth
    November 17th, 2010 at 07:08 | #5

    A mother is a baby’s greatest luxury item.
    Children know the difference between a mother wanting to be with them but having to make ends meet, and a mother wanting to get away from them.

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