FRIDAY, March 25,, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Working mothers with infants at home, take a breath or a sigh of relief. According to a new study, it's quality of time spent with baby -- not quantity -- that helps guide a toddler's social and intellectual development.
Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin compared women who didn't work outside the home and spent a lot of time with their infants to women who were employed outside the home and spent less time with their infants. They found no differences in the children's development up to three years of age.
"I would say the big news here is the amount of time that mothers spend with their children does not seem to be that important; it is the quality of the interaction, not just the amount of time," said Aletha Huston, the lead author and a professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin.
The results appear in the March-April 2005 issue of the journal Child Development.
Huston and her co-author, Stacey Rosenkrantz Aronson, looked at 24-hour diaries detailing the daily schedules of 1,053 mothers of infants, collected as part of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development's study of early child care. A total of 580 of the moms in the study were employed and 473 were not.
The researchers watched videotaped observations of the mothers' interaction with their babies during the babies' first year of life, to see how sensitive the mothers were to the children's needs. They also visited the family at home to evaluate the quality of the home environment.
Overall, Huston and Aronson found that the amount of time the moms spent with their babies was not a critical determinant of strong mom-child relationships.
They then assessed the children's intellectual and social development at ages 15 months, 2 years and 3 years.
The amount of time spent with the infant, and whether the mother worked or not, had no effect on the child's social and intellectual development during the three years, the researchers found.
One finding that might surprise some: Employed moms spent more time with their babies than expected, given their busy schedules. There also weren't great differences in time spent with infants, especially on the weekend, between working- and nonworking moms.
For instance, nonemployed mothers spent an average of 146 minutes in social interaction with their babies on a given weekday, whereas working mothers spent almost 90. On the weekend, working mothers actually spent more time in social interaction with their babies than nonworking mothers -- 157 minutes compared to almost 129 for nonworking moms.
The working women tend to compensate on the weekends for time away from babies during the week, Huston said. And they find the time to interact with their child -- often by cutting down on leisure-time activities for themselves, or in sleep or household activities.
The study fills in a gap in research, Huston said, about the effect of maternal employment and time spent with young children.
"Years ago we argued whether child care and working had a bad effect on young kids three and four years old," she said. "Now we all take for granted that it is OK."
"Where the controversy still exists is the first year of life," she said. "Some argue that fulltime maternal employment is not good for babies under one year. We are saying it is not the amount of time that mothers spend with their children that seems to matter for babies. It is more the characteristics of the mothers."
Another expert, Dr. Sarah L. Friedman, praised the research. Friedman, project scientist and scientific coordinator for the NICHD's Study of Early Child Care, was not involved in this particular analysis but is familiar with the findings. "The findings provide support for the prediction that mothers who spend more time with their infants, particularly time devoted to social interaction, are more sensitive and provide higher quality home environments during the child's early years," she said.
Based on the study findings, she added, it appears that employed women compensate for lost time with their children during the week by increasing the time with their infants on the weekends.
But she added a caveat: "One reason that maternal time may fail to predict children's development is that the authors have insufficient information about the content and quality of the interactions between mother and child."
For more information about children's milestones, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics.