Family Factors And Early Child Care Experiences Shape The Developing Mother-Child Relationship During The First Three Years Of Life

April 04, 1997

Dr. Jay Belsky, distinguished professor of human development and family studies
The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802

Family and child characteristics play a greater role in shaping how mothers and their children get along during the child's first three years of life than does early (non-maternal) child care experience, according to a report issued today (Thursday, April 3, 1997) by the National Institutes of Child Health and Development (NICHD). The information will be presented tomorrow (Friday, April 4) at the meetings of the Society for Research in Child Development in Washington, D.C.

At the same time, however, some evidence indicated that children who spent more time in child care, especially during the first six months of life, experienced less positive mother-child relations, as revealed by repeated observations of mother-child interaction between 6 and 36 months. When children received high quality (non-maternal) child care, though, more positive mother-child interactions were observed. These are the most recent findings to emerge from the NICHD study of early child care, an on-going multi-million dollar, 10-site investigation, involving more than 1,300 families intended to illuminate the conditions under which early child care may undermine or enhance child development and family relations.

"Unlike most studies of child care to date, this intensive research examines not only the effects of child care on children's' cognitive and social functioning, but how early care shapes the relationships that mothers and children develop with each other. Moreover, in addition to examining the quantity of care that children experience and its quality, children's experiences in their home environments are studied in detail. The fact that the sample is large, ethnically and economically diverse, and is being followed from the first month of the child's life through the end of the seventh year makes this a most unique research endeavor," observed Penn State professor Jay Belsky, an internationally recognized expert on child development and day care and collaborating investigator on the project.

In order to measure mother-child relationship processes, investigators videotaped mothers interacting with their children when the children were 6, 15, 24 and 36 months of age. The researchers also watched how responsive and restrictive mothers were toward their children at 15 and 36 months when the mothers were busy being interviewed in their own homes. Some mothers were more sensitive and responsive to their children irrespective of whether they were preoccupied with the interviewer or could devote their full attention to the child during the video taping sessions.

The strongest determinants of how mother and child related to each other were the economic status of the family, the psychological well-being of mothers, and the temperamental characteristics of the children. When families were poorer, mothers depressed or infants had moor difficult temperaments, mother-child interactions were less positive. But this was also the case, though to a lesser extent, when children spent more time in child care, especially when children who spent very little time in child care were compared to those who spent lots of time in care. In fact, it appeared that it was amount of time spent in child care in the first six months of life that was most important in explaining how quantity of child care affected mother-child interaction processes. When children experienced more care, mothers were less sensitive, more negative and children were less positively affectionate toward their mothers.

Furthermore, in the case of children observed in care, it turned out that those who experienced higher quality of care received more sensitive and affectionate care from their mothers. Once again, however, these effects were rather modest, especially in comparison to the effects of family characteristics and child attributes.

"In other words," Professor Belsky commented, "when it comes to understanding how early child care affects the developing mother-child relationship, both the quantity and quality of care that the very young child receives matter, though not more so than enduring characteristics of mothers, children and their families.

Results to be presented will address the following questions:

1. Do the hours non-maternal care predict qualities of mother-child interaction?

2. For children in care, do hours, stability and quality of care predict qualities of mother-child interaction?

3. In the whole sample, do hours of non-maternal care from earlier time periods predict subsequent qualities of mother-child interaction?

4. Does use of full-time child care -- particularly high-quality care -- buffer effects of risk conditions for mother-child interaction?

5. When mothers are at risk, does use of full-time care introduce risk to mother-child interaction?

CONTACT: From mid-day April 3 to April 6 , Dr. Belsky can be contacted at The Washington Sheraton Hotel, 202-328-2000. At Penn State, Dr. Belsky can be contacted at 814-865-1447. Other assistance can be provided by Kimberley Yarnell Bierly in Penn State's the Department of Public Information at (814) 865-7517 (office) or (814) 364-1042 (home).

Penn State

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