If a mother works outside the home, is she putting her infant at risk? What influences young children's sense of trust in their mothers?
Mothers and families have been asking themselves these questions for years. Social scientists have, too. Past research often indicated that infants in child care tend to have less-secure relationships with their mothers and may experience problems later in life.
The studies compounded the confusion some working mothers felt about leaving their infants in the care of others. Quite likely, however, just as many mothers dismissed such findings, believing the quality of time they spent with their infants and their sensitivity to their children's needs was what rendered them a good parent.
A study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development confirms those beliefs. And for mothers who might feel torn - even guilty - about working, the findings may provide some necessary reassurance.
The researchers have been following 1,300 families nationwide since 1991. (The study is ongoing.) They've observed children at home, in day care settings, and in research situations from birth through age 7. They've found that child care does not affect infants' trust in their mothers.
That's true no matter what age a child enters day care, how many hours he or she spends there, or even the quality or type of care given. What affects trust is a mother's sensitivity and responsiveness to her child.
That's not to say all child care is equal. In this study, as in others, child-care centers are ranked lowest, while care by fathers, relatives, or caregivers in the home is ranked highest. High quality is defined as smaller groups of children, more adults per child, and a stimulating environment.
The researchers warn that what appears to be true today could change as children grow. But common sense would indicate that a mother who is sensitive and responsive will continue to be so. Needless to say, her children will benefit. That's true whether she works outside the home or not.