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3 Lessons from Research About Supporting Mothers

Illustration by Jenna Luecke

Mothers have been celebrated and honored in the US for the last century on a national Mother's Day. But we all also know that families—and perhaps especially mothers—are under increasing pressure, financial, social and otherwise. Supporting mothers is critical for moms, kids, businesses and communities, and research from the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at UT Austin is pointing to what can be done.

Give Mothers Time

The U.S. is the only industrialized country that does not require employers to provide maternity leave. At the same time, the cost of childcare is rising, and the number of working moms with children under the age of three has doubled in the last 40 years, with 60 percent of mothers now in the workforce.

Research by Nancy Hazen, Deborah Jacobvitz and colleagues shows that the amount of time that a very young child spends with mom or another primary caretaker is often critical for child development. When a primary caregiver spends an excessive amount of time away from an infant—more than 60 hours per week—the infant has a higher risk of later problems. In particular, what's known as disorganized attachment can occur, where children by age 15 months often spin or hide when in need of comfort from that caregiver. The experts say embracing the fact that young children need to spend time with their mothers and fathers would help babies develop strong and lasting bonds, which help lead to lifelong success.

Treat Maternal Depression

Young children flourish in safe, loving environments and when they have strong bonds with their parents. But there is a caveat with serious consequences: children whose parents—especially mothers—are clinically depressed often do not develop the same level of social engagement as their peers.

Decades of research by Ted Dix and colleagues demonstrates that children who grow up "in a world with unresponsive adults…learn that an expected outcome cannot be achieved." The children withdraw, and there can be long-term consequences like low enthusiasm, low persistence, poor academic performance and even fewer facial expressions. Developing compassionate support systems and providing adequate access to mental health assistance would make a difference, researchers say.

Make Parenting Resources Available

Few people are intuitive enough to immediately know how to interact with young children; many parents turn to books, observe how other parents interact with their children, and seek out unusual ways to learn about parenting.

The School of Human Ecology has operated an exceptional, research-based resource for parents for the last nine decades. The Priscilla Pond Flawn Child and Family Laboratory works with parents and UT undergraduates to teach what science knows about developmentally appropriate responses to young children in a real-life setting: the school. As one UT student recently put it, "My whole outlook changed because of working [at the Lab School]. I've learned to solve problems with kids by getting to the source of their frustration instead of discounting their feelings. I have even used positive guidance in other settings." This Mother's Day weekend, it's worth getting educated about what children really need at different stages of their development and how to respond appropriately. After all, what's more likely to be on a mom's wish list than healthy, well-adjusted children?