Sunday, November 21st, 2010 | Author: mjward

Julie returned to work when her baby, Cassie, was eight months old. She had found it stifling to be home all day without the stimulation of her job demands. The baby went to a daycare center that accepted infants. Each worker was given only a few babies to look after. Toddlers enjoyed activities that prepared them for school. Cassie howled for the first two weeks when her mother left her at the center. Julie worried that Cassie would be harmed by the daily separation. But she had to pay attention to her own needs too. How could she raise a happy child when she herself was miserable?

How likely is Cassie to be damaged by entering daycare so young? There has been lots written about the need for children to have the nurture of a parent, especially during the first year of life. Usually it is assumed that the parent staying home with a young child is its mother. There has also been lots written about the needs of parents. In Julie’s case, the need is psychological. As much as she loves her baby, she is bored by unbroken mothering. Other mothers return to work because their families need their income. Research results over the years have been mixed. Some studies have found that children whose mothers worked during their first three years lagged in later school achievement and were more likely to be aggressive or throw tantrums. Others have found that children who have been in daycare do better in school.

Recently, researchers looked at the results of 69 published reports, dating from 1960 to March 2010 and covering a total of 128,738 children. Overall, having a mother who worked during a child’s first three years was only rarely connected with a child’s later school performance or behavioral problems. There were some variations, depending on family structure, income levels, and the age of the child when its mother returned to work. The differences, however, were small.

The children’s ages when their mothers return to the workforce appears to matter. When mothers were employed during a child’s first year, children’s later school achievement tended to be poorer. On the other hand, two- and three-year-olds showed better school results if their mothers worked. Timing, however, was not connected with behavioral problems. Whether a mother works part- or full-time does seem to matter. When mothers worked full-time during a child’s first year, the youngster had, on average, more behavior problems than children whose mothers were unemployed or worked part-time.

One group of children who benefitted from their mothers’ employment were children of single mothers. Some of these mothers found work to get off welfare. Their children did better in school and had fewer behavior problems than other children with working mothers. Perhaps the added financial security gave benefits like more nutritious food, and better clothing and shelter. In addition, these parents were role models for achievement and responsible behavior. However, mothers who were required to enter a welfare-to-work program, especially if their income dropped, had children with more difficulties.

Once families cross an income threshold, the benefits from employment when children are young may drop off, for example in two-parent families with both parents in the workforce. Once a family is not at risk financially, other factors might come into play. For example, parents may have problems juggling work and family responsibilities without feeling as much advantage from the increased income.

One factor that the study could not look at was the quality of care the children received. There is a great deal of difference, for example, between Cassie’s center and the registered family day care of her cousin’s. He is in a group of six children of various ages, while Cassie is in an infant group. He also experiences a more home-like atmosphere. Other researchers have found that children in high-quality day care like Cassie’s are more prepared for school and have fewer behavior problems than children in poorer quality care. The stability of care also matters. Children do better if they have only one or two caregivers rather than being subject to a constant turnover.

How likely is Cassie to be harmed by entering daycare so young? Probably not much. In fact, she may benefit from having a happier mother and entering the enrichment program of her care center.


Lucas-Thompson, R. G., Goldberg, W. A., & Prause, J. (2010, October 4). Maternal work early in the lives of children and its distal associations with achievement and behavior problems: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037

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