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If you’re planning to go back to work after taking maternity leave, you may wonder what effect this could have on your baby’s development. The answer is good news for (guilt-ridden) working moms: little to none. A study of 1,000 children nationwide found that while kids of mothers who work during their first year of life score slightly lower on cognition tests through age 7, the upsides of being a working mom balance this out.
“We saw benefits such as higher income and a greater chance of attending better-quality day care later on,” says study co-author Jane Waldfogel, Ph.D., a professor at Columbia University School of Social Work in New York. “We also found that mothers who worked in the first year were more sensitive and responsive to their child.” Researchers saw little or no evidence that working affected mother-child attachment. Instead, they found that the quality of parenting—warm and encouraging versus harsh and neglectful—and children’s experiences in child care settings are what are most important to development.
More good news A 2010 review of 69 studies published in Psychological Bulletin also found few associations between a mother’s employment in her child’s early years and their achievement or behavior later. “Where we did find significant patterns, they were mostly positive,” says lead author Rachel G. Lucas-Thompson, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. Indeed, kids of moms who worked during their child’s first three years had higher teacher-reported achievement scores and fewer “internalizing behaviors” like anxiety and depression. “Higher income that reduces family stress could be one reason,” Lucas-Thompson says.
However, the review did find that children of moms who worked full- or part-time in their baby’s first year had lower achievement scores, and children of mothers who worked full-time then had more “acting out” behaviors later on, though it’s unclear why. One reason may be the difference between maternal and nonmaternal care in that first year, Lucas-Thompson suggests. “Few of the studies took into account the quality of child care, which likely makes a big difference,” she says.