View all news

Working mums: the impact on children's early development

Press release issued: 13 August 2003

A study published today has found that most children don't appear to suffer any setback to their cognitive development if their mothers work.

Mothers who return to fulltime work soon after the birth of their baby would do well to pick their childminder carefully – because it could have long term effects on the development of their child.

The latest study of working mothers in the UK has found that most children don’t appear to suffer any setback to their cognitive development – how well they can read, write and speak - when it comes to school later on. 

Researchers have found that in most households where both parents work, the fathers spend more time with their baby.

The only children who do show significant ill-effects are those under the age of 18 months who were looked after for free by a friend, relative or neighbour while their mother went out to work fulltime.

The report, published by the University of Bristol’s Centre for Market and Public Organisation is based on the experiences of 12,000 children born in 1991 and 1992, who make up the Children of the 90s study.

It is one of the first times in Britain that children’s school assessments up to the age of 8 have been compared against maternal employment,  part of major research being financed by the Government’s Department for Education and Skills and the Evidence Based Policy Fund.

The report’s authors Paul Gregg and Liz Washbrook note that the last two decades have seen dramatic increases in employment trends among mothers with very young children.  These days 67 per cent of women with a child less than a year old go out to work.

The researchers looked at the mother’s employment in the first three years – and compared it with assessments of the children at four time points: at the age of two;  when they started school at four,  at the age of seven and at Key Stage 1, aged 7 or 8.

The report’s central findings are:

  • “For the majority of children, maternal employment in the first three years of life appears to have no adverse effect on later cognitive outcomes.”
  •  “There are negative effects only for the relatively unusual group off children whose mothers return to fulltime work before they are 18 months old.  The magnitude of these effects is small, and only a quarter of working mothers are in fulltime work this early.
  • “It is only those children whose non-parental care consists solely of unpaid care by a friend, relative or neighbour – such as a grandparent – who experience significant detrimental effects.  (40 per cent of the mothers who return to work early fulltime, or 5 per cent of all mothers). Short periods of care by relatives appear not to be damaging; it is sole reliance on relatives to cover fulltime working that appears less beneficial.”
  • The main reason why children whose mothers return to fulltime work are largely unaffected is that they miss out on very little parental involvement.  This is because fathers are more involved in these households, and working mothers cut back on their own free time to spend more time with their children.  A father’s active involvement with children under the age of two, in terms of play, reading and singing, is found to be beneficial for the child’s intellectual development.

The authors say that policies which encourage flexible and part-time working practices, or enable mothers to remain at home for longer after a birth could minimise the negative effects, as could policies affecting paternity leave and working patterns for fathers.

And they say it is important to realise the need for inexpensive and high quality childcare for very young children: “Relatively few mothers in our study made use of paid care before their children reached the age of two, probably due to the prohibitive costs.  The recent increases in financial support for childcare may lead to a shift towards paid care by working mothers.”


Edit this page