Mom's Work Schedule Affects Child's Learning

A growing number of moms with young children have odd work schedules, often because they have few other options. But new research suggests their kids may lag behind in terms of language and other early developmental skills.

The study, published in the January/February issue of the journal Child Development, is among the first to assess the impact of a mother's work schedule on her child's learning.

The number of American women working nontraditional hours (search) has doubled over the past two decades, with almost one in three women who are employed full time now working evening, graveyard, or varying shifts, according to one report.

"I don't think much attention has been paid to the impact of this on early child development," says researcher Wen-Jui Han, PhD, of the Columbia University School of Social Work (search).

Balancing Priorities

Many working women never have enough time to take care of everything on their to-do list. Thus, paring down this list and focusing on the essential items can help.

For example, learn to prioritize — a not-so-easy task at times. Since kids and work are your top priority, leave household chores at the bottom of your list. This doesn't mean wait until your house is in shambles, but just know that you can't do everything.

Know what your options are. Familiarize yourself with the Family and Medical Leave Act (search) and investigate possible options at work. Working flex time and compressed work weeks or working from home, if possible, may help.

Take steps to reduce stress and find support, such as friends and family who can help.

Language, Learning Poorer

"We know that when people work nonstandard hours a biological shift takes place," Han tells WebMD. "It is natural for someone who works nights to be sleepy during the day. So even though a mom might be with her kids, she may be too tired to give them everything they need."

Studies examining the effect of early maternal employment on a child's development have suggested an association between factors like maternal depression, sensitivity, the home environment and the type and quality of child care.

Han reviewed developmental data from a national study of early child care. Their investigation included just over 700 children whose mothers worked full time during their first three years of life. Half the moms worked traditional daytime hours, and the other half worked evening, overnight, or rotating shifts.

The majority of the families that took part in the study were working class to upper-middle-class non-Hispanic whites with just 20% falling into the lower-income category. The average age of the mothers was 28, and the mothers had a wide range of education levels.

After factoring in key variables known to influence child development, the researchers found that young children whose mothers worked nonstandard shifts performed much worse than other children on developmental tests that measured language skills, memory, problem solving and depth of knowledge.

The impact of a nontraditional work schedule on child development was comparable to that of being from a low-income home or having a mother who was poorly educated, the researchers noted.

Fewer Kids Go to Daycare

Han suggests that the developmental delay may be due to the type of care children often receive when moms work nontraditional hours. A recent study found that the children of mothers who work during the day are more likely to be enrolled in center-based child-care programs by their third birthday than the children of mothers who work nights or have changing schedules.

Child development researcher Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, PhD, says in general young children who attend quality day-care centers have a developmental advantage over those who don't. She directs the Center for Children and Families at Columbia University (search).

Brooks-Gunn says better access to quality day care and more lenient family leave policies could help all working families.

"This study illustrates the need to have a public discussion about the impact of nonstandard work hours on children." she says. "I don't think the question has even been brought up at the national level."

By Salynn Boyles, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Han, W-J. Child Development, January/February 2005; vol 6. Wen-Jui Han, PhD, assistant professor, Columbia University School of Social Work, New York. Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, PhD, Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of Child Development and Education, Teachers College, Columbia University; director, center for Children and Families, Columbia University.