There is finally some good news for working moms who worry about the time they spend away from their young children. New research shows that quality is much more important than quantity when it comes to spending time with an infant or toddler.

Working moms in the study did spend less time overall with their young children than mothers who did not work outside the home. But they tended to make up for lost time on their off days at the expense of other activities like housework.

The researchers reported that the quality of the interaction between mother and child had a much greater impact on the child’s social and intellectual development than the total number of hours spent together.

So while a caring mother’s house may suffer if she works outside the home, her young children probably won’t, researcher Aletha C. Huston, PhD, tells WebMD.

“The things that really predicted a child’s development were the characteristics of the mother -- how sensitive she was and whether she engaged in stimulating and interesting activities with her child,” she says.

Less Than 2 Hours Difference

Huston and University of Texas at Austin colleague Stacey Rosenkrantz Aronson examined time diaries kept by 1,053 mothers of 7- and 8-month-old infants enrolled in the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care.

The study also included information on various aspects of the children’s development up until age 3.

When they examined two 24-hour time periods that included one workday and one nonworking day for the moms with outside jobs, the researchers found that stay-at-home moms only spent about an hour and a half more with their young child than working moms.

Working Moms Compensate for Lost Time

One of the biggest predictors of total time spent with an infant was whether or not a mother had other children at home.

Working mothers tended to compensate for the time they spent outside the home by spending more time with their children on weekends and by decreasing the time they spent doing housework and engaging in leisure and social activities.

A mother’s employment status during the first three years of her child’s life was found to have no impact on the child’s social and intellectual development. The findings are reported in the March/April issue of the journal Child Development.

“The key is to take advantage of the time you have with your child, whether you work outside the home or not,” Huston says.

Other Research

The study is not the first to show that a mother’s work status, per se, is a poor predictor of child development. Elizabeth Harvey, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, also reported that children whose mothers worked during their infant and toddler years were not significantly different from children whose mothers stayed at home during this period.

Their research was based on data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, and included approximately 12,600 people interviewed annually from their teen years through adulthood. Children born to mothers who took part in the study were also tested a various times.

The researchers found that children whose mothers worked long hours did have slightly lower scores in terms of verbal and academic development, but the differences disappeared over time.

By Salynn Boyles, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Huston, A. Child Development, March/April 2005. Aletha C. Huston, PhD, professor of human development, University of Texas at Austin. Elizabeth Harvey, PhD, University of Massachusetts at Amherst.