The quality of mother–child interactions is central in the social and emotional development of the child. It is the process by which infants are initiated into the social world. But interactions need time and space – they requiere mother and infant to be together.
A recent study by Plotka, R. & Busch-Rossnagel examines associations among length of maternity leave, mother–child interactions, and attachment among American working mothers and their infants. The only countries, other than the U.S., that do not require any paid leave for mothers are Papua New Guinea and Suriname (World Policy Forum 2015). The length of paid leave is at least 12 weeks in all of the OECD countries with the exception of the U.S. (World Bank 2015).
In the U.S., the length of maternity leave varies greatly among mothers because of the absence of a universal policy for paid leave. The effect of the duration of maternity leaves has been given extensive consideration in the literature studying labor markets, women’s health, and infant health. In contrast, infant psychological outcomes have been given less consideration in the discussion related to the length of maternity leave. This study addresses these gaps examineing the possible effects, both direct and indirect, of the length of maternity leave on mother–child interactions and on attachment security.
The quality of parent–child interactions is central in the social and emotional development of the child. Parent–child interactions are the process by which infants are initiated into the social world. Through this attunement, parents penetrate the child’s inner rhythms, read and respond to emotional signs, teach children rules of communications and social exchange, and promote the child’s development of the social self
Quality of interactions are typically defined by
- level of engagement,
- accuracy in reading each other’s cues,
Through these interactions, the infant learns to manage frustration, accept delay and disappointment, operate in the environment autonomously, and cooperate with others.
The levels of quality in mother–child interactions are established early in life; the quality of mother–child interactions appears to be stable across the first two and a half years of life, and from the preschool age to the middle childhood years.
Mother–child interactions have been related to positive developmental outcomes such as emotional regulation, theory of mind, empathy, and attachment security.
Children who were observed to have higher levels of dyadic mutuality in their interactions with their mothers before 2 years of age had higher levels of self-regulation at 3 years of age, and greater attunement and smoother interaction resulted in greater levels of social competence. In contrast, children with high levels of negative affect in the parent–child relationship had lower levels of self-regulation, which can put them at risk for problems in social, emotional, and cognitive development.
In other studies, the degree of match between mother and infant behavior and the mutual influence and adaptation to each other’s cues during infancy predicted a child’s capacity for empathy at 13 years of age. The author concluded that the opportunity to share emotional experiences and emotional coordination with a significant adult during infancy is central to the child’s ability to empathize with emotional states of others later in life.
Attachment is a special emotional relationship that involves an exchange of care, nurture, and pleasure. The attachment figure plays the key role of providing the framework for the development of internal working models that result from the internalization of early experiences. These internal models are like blueprints for future relationships and constitute a set of coping skills that provide organization and coherence in the infant’s mind.
Attachment security is central to the understanding of social and emotional development in early childhood, and has consistently found to be a predictor of positive development in childhood.
When infants experience protection and comfort, and, at the same time, are given the opportunity to explore independently, they develop internal working models of self as independent, lovable, worthy, and self-reliant, prompting feelings of confidence and emotional regulation. These infants experience secure attachments, which allow them to use the caregiver as a secure base to explore the world freely. Attachment security has been found to predict positive developmental outcomes, such as, pro-social behaviors, competence with peers, social skills, and empathy
Attachment insecurity: in contrast, when a child experiences rejection and the needs for comfort and exploration are ignored or are inconsistently met, the infant is likely to develop internal working models of the self as less worthy, less lovable, and less self-reliant, prompting feelings of rejection, hostility, anxiety, and ambivalence. These infants experience attachment insecurity, and they view themselves, relationships, and the world as unsafe and unreliable.
Attachment dependency is a form of attachment insecurity and constitutes emotional dependence and over-reliance on the caregiver for protection and love. The child develops internal working models of a caregiver as someone that is unstable, unreliable, and whose love is contingent on the child’s neediness behaviors. As a result, the child displays clinginess, feels too insecure to explore the world freely, and is unable to use the caregiver as a secure base. These behaviors result in problematic and insecure relationships later in life.
Time frame for Attachment
The first months of life are key to the development of secure attachments. Attachments begin to form from birth, they are established by the ninth month of life, and by 12–14 months, they are finalized. Once attachments are formed, they remain relatively stable through childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
Research has shown the underlying biological processes that cause certain bonding behaviors to emerge with more intensity during the post-partum period. During labor and the post-partum period, a woman releases the hormone oxytocin. This hormone has been shown to affect maternal caregiving behavior and pair bonding. Associations between levels of oxytocin released in the human mother and the quality of mother child interactions have been found consistently, suggesting that the post-partum period may be a primed biological period for the development of healthy attachments. Policies that address issues such as the duration of maternity leaves have the potential to facilitate time for mothers and infants to spend together and to develop secure attachments.
The effect of length of leave on mother–child interactions and attachment
Few studies have explored the link between length of maternity leave and mother–child interactions or attachment. Feldman and colleagues (2004) compared a group of mothers who took maternity leaves longer than 12 weeks to a group of mothers who took maternity leaves shorter than 12 weeks. Women in the long leave group had better understanding of child development, higher levels of preoccupation with their infant, and reported that motherhood had a better impact on their self-esteem and their marriage. In addition, longer maternity leaves were related to better job adaptation. However, this study did not include observations of mother–child interactions.
Clark and colleagues (1997) found that shorter leaves resulted in lower levels of maternal sensitivity and increased negative affect during interactions with the child.
One study found a link between maternity leave and attachment. In a nationally representative sample, when comparing ambivalent and non-ambivalent infants, infants were more likely to be classified in the ambivalent category when the mothers did not take maternity leave (Pisciella 2008). Ambivalent attachment refers to infants who are insecurely attached, exhibit separation anxiety, are unable to use the caregiver as a secure base, and develop internal working models of ambivalence towards attachment figures, because caregivers are usually inconsistent and unpredictable (Bowlby 1988). This study gives evidence to the links between maternity leave and attachment security. However, this study did not look at the indirect effects of length of maternity leave and at the role of quality of mother–child interactions.
The present study
- To explore the direct effects of the length of maternity leave among working mothers on the quality of mother–child interactions.
- To assess the direct effects of mother–child interactions on attachment security and attachment dependency.
- To explore whether length of maternity leave indirectly affects the levels of attachment security by affecting the quality of mother–child interactions.
Three hypotheses were proposed:
Hypothesis 1: longer maternity leaves would be associated with higher levels of mother–child interactions.
Hypothesis 2: higher levels of quality mother–child interactions would be associated with higher levels of attachment security and lower levels of attachment dependency.
Hypothesis 3: longer maternity leaves would be associated with higher levels of quality mother–child interactions, which in turn would be associated with higher levels of attachment security and lower levels of attachment dependency.
Since socio-economic status (SES) is related to the length of maternity leave, this study included maternal SES as a variable in the models.
For the study, the participants were collected in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Birth Cohort (ECLS-B), a nationally representative sample of children. Data were collected at 9 months and two years of age.
Mother–child interactions were assessed when the child was 9 months old with the Nursing Child Assessment Teaching Scale (NCATS): asking the mother to teach the child a task that is slightly beyond his or her abilities, which creates a certain amount of distress. Trained observers paid attention to the quality of the interactions and the level of responsiveness between mother and child rather than on success in the task.
After reviewing all the data, all three study hypothesis were confirmed.
The effect of maternity leave on the quality of mother–child interactions
One of the main findings of this study was that length of maternity leave had a direct effect on the quality of mother–child interactions. Similarly, quality of mother–child interactions during infancy has been shown to predict secure attachments, levels of empathy and academic success later in life.
The significant effect found between length of maternity leave and quality of mother–child interactions is consistent with the previous findings that shorter maternity leaves result in more negative mother–child interaction. The findings of the present study support what has been argued by many developmentalists, namely that the ability to spend time with a child before the return to work might help a mother develop higher levels of attunement to her child’s needs or higher levels of sensitivity towards her child’s cues without the stress of separation. Overall, this body of work indicates that the mother–child interactions are sensitive to the amount of time a mother has to get to know her child before she returns to work. These results should inform the development of policies that support the needs of infants and working mothers.
The effect of maternity leave on attachment
Another important result of this study was that the effect of the length of maternity leave on attachment was mediated by the quality of mother–child interactions. Length of maternity leave has played an important role in supporting the development of secure attachments because of its effect on the quality of mother–child interactions.
The results bring new light on an enduring research issue, namely the relationship between non-maternal child care in the months of life and attachment. The NICHD ECCRN studies (1997, 1999) found that more than 10 hours a week in child care during the first year of life put a child at risk of developing insecure attachments and aggressive behaviors when a mother had low levels of sensitivity (NICHD 1997). The results confirm that maternity leave policies might be an appropriate way of addressing the need for infants to develop secure attachments.
Implications for policy
The results of this study have several implications for policy affecting mothers and their infants, including implications for maternity leave coverage, length, and compensation. Since developing quality interactions and forming attachments is a universal need of infants, a universal policy will best address the needs of working American families.
These findings should also inform policy regarding the length of leave provided. Although the average leave in the U.S. and in the current sample lasted about 12 weeks, many women in the U.S. return to work during the first weeks of their children’s lives (Human Rights Watch 2011). A policy that ensures a length of leave needs also to address the need for some leave to be paid. Longer unpaid leave might not result in longer maternity leaves due to the loss of income associated with an unpaid leave during the months following childbirth. These circumstances can be highly stressful for mothers and families.
This study found that there is a direct effect between length of maternity leave and the quality of mother–child interactions, and an indirect effect between the length of maternity leave and attachment.
This supports the need for parents to have the opportunity to choose to take maternity leaves before infants enter child care. While quality child care can results in positive developmental outcomes for the infants, maternity leave can give mothers the opportunity to spend time with their infants, engage in positive and stress-free interactions, and learn to read a child’s cues before they negotiate the stress of balancing parenting and work. A combination of comprehensive maternity leave and child care policies will give each family the opportunity to have some choice in timing and combination of work, leave, and child care.
Plotka, R. & Busch-Rossnagel, N.A. ICEP (2018) 12: 2. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40723-018-0041-6 The role of length of maternity leave in supporting mother–child interactions and attachment security among American mothers and their infants.
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