Child development 'not harmed' by mother's return to work

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A study has found that how well children do at school is not affected if their mother returns to work in their first year of life.

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Researchers from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education examined data from two cohort studies to determine whether children’s cognitive and behavourial outcomes at school are associated with their mother's employment during their first year.

Nearly two-thirds of the children in the 1970s British Cohort Study and the US 1979 National Longitudinal Study of Youth Child had mothers who worked during the first year of their lives.

Around 37 per cent of children in the British study had mothers who worked part-time, less than 30 hours a week, and 28 per cent had a full-time job, 30 or more hours per week.

Of the children in the American study, 43 per cent had mothers who worked full-time and 13 per cent worked part-time.

Researchers found no significant association between children’s maths score and reading and vocabulary between the ages of four and six if their mother worked full or part-time.

While children in the US study whose mothers worked had better behaviour than those of non-employed mothers, the same was not true of the British children.

One reason for this, say the researchers, is that children’s early experience of ‘social settings’ has helped their behavourial adjustment.

The study concludes, ‘Despite recent public concern regarding maternal employment of mothers with young children, especially in the UK, the bulk of the evidence supports the view that it really doesn’t matter much one way or the another if mothers are in the labour force when their children are very young.'

Professor Heather Joshi, who led the study, said, ‘The research evidence reflects many changes over the last 40 years. There has traditionally been a concern that the employment of mothers comes at the expense of child development. But as the percentage of mothers in work has gone up, any impact on children has diminished.

‘This is likely to be a result of an increasingly friendly environment for families who combine paid work with childrearing, in the various ways now possible, including more maternity leave and huge changes in the availability of childcare.’

She added that although the evidence found neither bad nor good effects overall on children from mothers’ employment, this was not absolute proof of no harm for all children under any circumstances.

Sarah Jackson, chief executive of the charity Working Families, said, ‘This report is a blast of fresh air and will reassure many mothers who are working while their children are young.

‘We know that families need both time and resources to thrive, and many mothers have to work to support their families financially. Children will benefit when mothers (and fathers) are able to find the right balance, the hours they need and the quality childcare that fits their working patterns.

‘While the report shows there is no academic effect on children from mothers working, we also need to heed warnings from the study that some circumstances will cause harm. If mothers face poverty, have no control over their working hours and family time is squeezed, their children may be affected. We need more family-shaped jobs to support strong families and ensure children thrive.'

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