Mothers returning to work early doesn't threaten child development
Photo: GSCSNJ. Creative Commons.

Mothers going back to work early doesn’t harm child development

By Caitlin McPherran Lombardi and , | December 2016 

Research from three industrialised countries finds that early returns to work after childbearing do not pose a threat to the healthy development of children.

Mothers’ going back to work soon after childbirth poses no harm to children’s development, according to our recent studies in the US, UK, and Australia.

Studies of children born a generation earlier, in the 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s, painted a more worrying picture. These studies found that when mothers returned to work in the first year or two after childbirth, children’s early learning and behavioral skills suffered.

Our findings were based on nationally representative panel studies of thousands of children born in the early 2000’s in the US, UK, and Australia. The studies followed children and families from birth until they entered primary school.

Mothers reported their employment experiences after childbirth; the children’s cognitive and behavioral skills were directly assessed and rated by teachers in kindergarten or first grade. We used advanced statistical techniques to adjust for factors—such as maternal education and prior work experience—that could bias associations between early maternal employment and children’s functioning. Doing so helped us isolate how mothers’ employment specifically might support or harm children’s development.

Early return to work is now common

Going back to work early – within two years of childbirth – was common among mothers in all three countries, though mothers from the UK and Australia were slower to return to work than American mothers—likely because the UK and Australia have more generous maternity leave policies. Nearly 70 per cent of US mothers returned to work before their child was two years old, compared with 60 per cent of mothers in the UK and a third of Australian mothers. By the time children had started formal schooling, the early years picture was reversed: a higher proportion of mothers were employed in the UK and Australia than in the US.

“Early maternal employment does not harm families.”

We found that, when they entered school, children of mothers who went back to work early had cognitive and behavioral skills similar to those of children whose mothers weren’t employed during the first two years after childbirth. This was true for children in all three countries.

We also examined whether the number of hours mothers worked, mothers’ job earnings, or the number of hours children spent in child care affected the association between maternal employment and children’s development. Overall, we saw few consistent patterns to suggest that these factors explained or altered associations between early maternal employment and children’s later skills.

Mixed picture around part-time work

We did find some evidence to suggest that part-time work had different implications for children’s development in different countries. In the US, we saw some small negative links between part-time employment and children’s behavioral skills. Children of mothers who worked part-time in the first 9 months after childbirth had lower social skills, while children of mothers who went to work part-time between 9 and 24 months after childbirth had more conduct problems. In contrast, when mothers in the UK and Australia returned to work part-time between 9 and 24 months after childbirth, we saw small benefits for children’s behavioral skills.

Income effect stronger for poorer households

Household income and maternal income from employment also emerged as a factor in the US and UK. In the US, children from low-income families had slightly higher cognitive skills if their mothers went back to work before they were 9 months old, and fewer conduct problems if their mothers went back to work when they were between 9 and 24 months old.

In middle-income households, there were no negative effects if mothers worked when their children were under nine months. However, we saw small detrimental effects among children in high-income households. We found a similar pattern in the UK in relation to mothers’ income from employment. Children with mothers who earned less appeared to benefit from employment begun between 9 and 24 months after childbirth in comparison to children with lower-earning mothers who began employment earlier than 9 months or later than 24 months after childbirth.

Reassuring message for maternal employment

The message of our research, across these three countries, is that parents can feel reassured that early maternal employment does not harm families, and may even be beneficial in lower-income families. Why are our findings different from the findings of studies conducted among children born in earlier generations? One possible explanation is that the implications of early maternal employment for children have changed, because mothers’ work is more accepted and fathers are more involved in caregiving. It’s also possible that the discrepancies are due to differences in study design or measurement.

mother and baby

Photo: Ian. Creative Commons.

Mothers’ employment has broad benefits for society. It supports women’s careers, encourages balanced gender roles, and increases families’ economic resources. Our study shows that, in general, children from the US, UK and Australia aren’t harmed when mothers work.

Psychological cost may outweigh income effect for better-off households

We found some evidence to suggest that income from employment makes a difference for children’s development, but in different ways depending on a family’s socioeconomic status. US children from families with limited income from non-maternal work sources may achieve slight benefits from early maternal employment, whereas children from higher-income families may suffer small detriments. Similarly, UK children of lower-earning mothers benefited from maternal employment begun between 9 and 24 months. Poorer children from both countries appeared to benefit from the income mothers earned; in better-off families, however, the added benefit of mothers’ work income may not outweigh psychological or social costs of early maternal employment.

Need for improved work-family policies

Our results highlight the importance of work-family policies that support women’s ability to balance childrearing and employment. The US currently has no federal paid maternity leave policy and a limited unpaid leave policy of 12 weeks for eligible working mothers. Maternity leave is more comprehensive in the UK, offering mothers job security for up to 39 weeks after childbirth, though only the first six weeks of maternity leave are fully paid. In Australia, mothers can claim up to 18 weeks’ leave, paid at the national minimum wage.

Our work shows correlation rather than causation, and thus caution is warranted in drawing policy implications. Still, our results suggest that US and UK children might benefit from more comprehensive paid maternal leave policies, which have been found to encourage mothers’ employment continuity after childbearing while also providing income replacement.

Further, the slight negative associations between part-time work and children’s development in the US suggest that the income from part-time work may not compensate for mothers’ time away from parenting. Part-time jobs in the US tend to pay little and offer few benefits such as health insurance and paid sick days. In contrast, part-time jobs in Australia and the UK tend to offer more pay and benefits. Our results suggest that enhancing the quality and pay of part-time jobs could be an important way to improve US children’s developmental outcomes.

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