NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Early Employment of Mothers Leads to Slower Learning

July 18, 2002

Early maternal employment negatively affects young children's intellectual development, concludes a new analysis of data from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care, considered the most comprehensive child-care study to date.

Maternal employment of 30 hours a week or more by the time a baby was 9 months old resulted in lower scores on school readiness tests at age 3. The negative effects of full-time employment persisted among children as old as 7 or 8. There was no significant effect if mothers did not start working until the child was a year old.

Other important factors in the children's development were the quality of childcare, the home environment and the sensitivity of the mother, the researchers found. Mothers' sensitivity was measured by their responsiveness to the children's need for such things as comforting or play.

The children were scored using the Bracken School Readiness test:

  • 3-year olds from an average home environment, in average-quality childcare, with a mother who did not work by the ninth month, scored at the 50th percentile.
  • Children in similar settings whose mothers were employed by the ninth month scored at the 44th percentile -- a significant difference according to the authors.
  • Children in poor-quality childcare with "insensitive" mothers who worked before the ninth month scored in the 37th percentile.
  • Three year-olds in good-quality childcare with "sensitive" mothers who were not employed by the ninth month did the best, scoring in the 56th percentile.

Early maternal employment had a greater effect on boys than girls. In the 1,000 families studied over three years, 55 percent, 71 percent and 75 percent of mothers were employed by the third, sixth, and ninth months, respectively.

Source: Tamar Lewin, "Study Links Working Mothers to Slower Learning," New York Times, July 17, 2002; Randolph E. Schmid, "Mother's work may adversely affect children's development, study says," Associated Press, July 17, 2002.


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