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U.S. study finds first-year maternal employment has no ill effects on child's development

BabyNew research from the United States provides good news to parents on a question that has drawn a lot of attention from researchers and the media – do children fare worse if their mums work in the first year of life? The answer, according to a landmark study, is a resounding no. The findings from researchers at Teacher's College and the Columbia University School of Social Work, were published this week by the Society for Research in Child Development.

Why did this study find no ill effects of early employment when so many others have? Authors Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Wen-Jui Han, and visiting professor at LSE, Jane Waldfogel, attribute their striking findings to two main factors. First, they had exceptionally rich data not just on parental employment, but also on parent-child interactions, family income, child care, and other factors that affect child development. Second, they applied an analytic method that allowed them to calculate the total effect of maternal employment as it actually occurs – that is, taking into account all the knock-on effects of employment on other factors like income, parenting, and child care. In doing so, they discovered that while early maternal employment has some downsides, it also offers some advantages – increasing mothers’ income, and making it more likely that children attend high-quality child care. Taking the advantages and disadvantages into account, the net effect is neutral. “This is great news for the overwhelming majority of mothers (80%) who work during their child's first year of life,” said Dr. Brooks-Gunn. “Many parents, women in particular, struggle with the difficult transition of returning to work, and the new data from our study should alleviate some of the parental concerns about the negative effects maternal working might have on child outcomes.”

The results provide a more nuanced understanding of how maternal employment might affect children. “Our results call into question existing theoretical approaches to this area, much of which has emphasised the primacy of early relationships between the mother and child,” states Dr. Han. “Although early relationships are important, we found little or no evidence that first-year maternal employment affected child attachment. Instead, the more important factors are those related to the quality of parenting and children's experiences of child care.”

In common with earlier studies, the authors did find quite consistently that children did fare better if their mothers worked part-time (i.e. fewer than 30 hours per week) rather than full-time in the first year. They also looked at the effects of employment after the first year, but found that it was first-year employment that was most consequential.

jane waldfogelThe authors note that although the study found no negative effects of first-year maternal employment, this should not provide grounds for complacency. Jane Waldfogel, professor at Colombia University and visiting professor at LSE, commented: “Parents in the U.S. are struggling hard to meet their children’s needs in spite of having only very minimal access to public policies that other nations take for granted – policies such as paid parental leave, the right to request part-time and flexible work hours, and subsidised high-quality child care. The evidence is strong that children would be better off if their parents had more of such supports in the U.S.”

The full study, entitled “First-Year Maternal Employment and Child Development in the First 7 Years” is published in the July 2010, volume 75 edition of the Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development and may be found online at: http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/118539445/home| .


About the Authors:
Jeanne Brooks-Gunn is Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of Child Development and Education at Teachers College and the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, and co-director of the National Center for Children and Families. Wen-Jui Han is Associate Professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work. Jane Waldfogel is Professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work and Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics.

For more information contact: 
Jeannie Hii, Colombia University 001-212-851-2327, Jy2223@columbia.edu| or the LSE press office on 0207 9557060, pressoffice@lse.ac.uk|  

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