Teachers College, Social Work Professors Find Association Between Mothers Working Full-time and Young Children’s Cognitive and Verbal Development

November 1, 2011 @ 7:01 pm

By James Devitt
Columbia News

Full-time employment by mothers by the ninth month of their child’s life is associated with poorer cognitive and verbal development for these children at age three, according to a study conducted by Professor Jeanne Brooks-Gunn of Columbia Teachers College and Jane Waldfogel and Wen-Jui Han, both professors at Columbia’s School of Social Work. The findings are published in the July-August issue of “Child Development.”

The researchers also found that the quality of child care, the home environment and maternal sensitivity are important contributors to verbal and cognitive development during the first three years of life. However, even after taking these factors into account, the researchers found lower cognitive development for the children of mothers who worked full time (30 or more hours per week) during the first nine months of life.

The researchers did not find significant negative effects on cognitive and verbal development among children whose mothers worked fewer than 30 hours per week in the first year or those whose mothers who began work one year after their birth.

“We’re not saying working is negative — we’re saying working a lot of hours in the first year of a child’s life is associated with poorer cognitive and verbal development,” said Brooks-Gunn. “If it’s in young children’s interest to have mothers working fewer hours, then that must be reflected in our policies.”

“Western European countries have much more generous family-leave policies, reflecting people’s concerns about the well-being of children,” she noted. “We can do better in this country by taking results such as ours and not using them to say women shouldn’t be working and instead ask what can work best for families in America so that mothers can work fewer hours when their children are younger.”

Waldfogel added, “In other advanced industrialized countries, new mothers have the right to an average of 10 months of maternity leave, which is usually paid. In the United States, in contrast, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) covers less than half the private sector workforce, provides only 12 weeks of leave and does not provide paid leave.”

Drawing from their findings, the researchers offered the following recommendations:

  • Improving the quality of child care, especially infant care, used by children of full-time working mothers;
  • Expanding U.S. maternity leave provisions to allow at least 10 months leave, to provide paid leave and to cover a larger portion of the U.S. workforce. The researchers also suggest exploring policy options to allow mothers to work part-time but without loss of pay while their children are less than one year old;
  • Encouraging employers to adopt other family-friendly policies to make it easier for mothers and fathers to combine work and family responsibilities, and
  • Amending federal welfare legislation to make sure that mothers on welfare are not required to go back to work full-time while their children are less than one year old (Currently, states have the option to require mothers to work when their children are as young as three months. Under proposed reforms to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, those mothers could be required to work 40 hours per week rather than the current 20 hours per week).

Waldfogel co-authored a study released in 2001 that found more than 80 percent of employers covered by FMLA said the law’s provisions had a positive effect or no noticeable effect on business productivity, profitability and growth. In addition, nearly two-thirds of employers said that complying with FMLA was somewhat or very easy.

The study published in “Child Development” used data on 900 white children from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care. The study included detailed data on maternal employment as well as data about the home environment, parental sensitivity and child-care quality and type over the first three years of life. Cognitive development was measured through the Bayley Mental Development Index (MDI) at 15 months, the revised Bayley MDI at 24 months and the Bracken School Readiness score at 36 months.

In other work, the authors have found that the negative effects of full-time maternal employment in the first year of life on children’s cognitive development persist to age seven and eight. Following children from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth’s Child Supplement, they found that children whose mothers worked more than 20 hours per week in the first year of life scored lower on math and reading tests at age five and six and again at age seven and eight. This study was published in “Demography” in May 2002.