Early Caregiving Boosted Babies' Development

Early maternal sensitivity affected relationships and academic achievement through adulthood

(RxWiki News) Mothers who quickly respond to that 3 a.m. feeding wail with love and attention may improve their children’s development — from infancy to adulthood.

Sensitive caregiving in the first three years of a child's life improved children's development all the way into adulthood, a new study found.

Dr. K. Lee Raby, of the University of Delaware in Newark, led this study. Dr. Raby and team found that the quality of caregiving predicted the child’s social competence and academic achievement from childhood into adulthood. A past study, the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, found that maternal sensitivity was associated with children’s social and cognitive development at least through adolescence.

The current study is the first to find that these effects may last into adulthood.

"Altogether, the study suggests that children's experiences with parents during the first few years of life have a unique role in promoting social and academic functioning — not merely during the first two decades of life, but also during adulthood," Dr. Raby said in a press release. "Because individuals' success in relationships and academics represents the foundation for a healthy society, programs and initiatives that equip parents to interact with their children in a sensitive manner during the first few years of their children's life can have long-term benefits for individuals, families, and society at large."

In sensitive caregiving, the parent responds promptly and appropriately to a child’s signals. A sensitive caregiver is positively involved with the child. The parent also creates a secure space for the child to explore.

Dr. Raby and team used data from the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation (MLSRA). Children in that study had been followed from birth to age 32. The authors of the MLSRA observed each mother and child four times in the child’s first three years of life.

Teachers reported on each child’s functioning at several points during childhood and adolescence. The children also completed standardized academic tests. When the children in the MLSRA reached their 20s and early 30s, the study authors interviewed them.

The mothers of the children studied were recruited for the MLSRA research between 1975 and 1977. Almost half of the mothers in the study were teens when their children were born. Sixty-five percent were single parents, and 42 percent had less than a high school education.

The MLSRA research team had observed or videotaped the mothers. They had mothers feed or play with their children. The mothers also helped their children solve problems. The MLSRA authors then rated the mothers’ actions for maternal sensitivity.

Dr. Raby and team studied 234 patients from the MLSRA study.

Dr. Raby's team found that children who received more sensitive caregiving early in life had stronger academic abilities. Dr. Raby and colleagues also found that sensitive caregiving made children more effective at functioning in peer and romantic relationships.

This study was published Dec. 18 in Child Development.

The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute of Mental Health and the University of Minnesota funded this research. The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
December 16, 2014