Babies as young as nine months show different rates of development depending on how sensitive and responsive their parents are to their needs.
Latest results from the Growing Up in Ireland study to be released today, show parents who were more sensitive in their interactions with their offspring had babies with slightly higher development scores in areas like communication, social skills, and dexterity.
But a far bigger influence on how well a baby had developed during the first nine months was their gestational age, with premature babies more likely to show slower development regardless of parental sensitivity.
Low birth weight in full- term babies was also a factor in slower development even though it was associated with slightly greater sensitivity, in fathers in particular. Its overall influence, however, was relatively small.
A similar link was found between difficult infant temperament and slower development but it had the opposite effect on parental sensitivity with both mothers and fathers reporting less sensitivity towards fussy and irritable children.
The researchers warned against drawing definite conclusions here, noting: “Children who have difficult temperaments may evoke fewer positive interactions from their parents, but it could also be that lower levels of parental sensitivity give rise to higher levels of infant irritability.”
Stress and depression were found to reduce parents’ ability to be responsive although depression had a greater influence on mothers than on fathers. Mothers of babies with a difficult temperament were more likely to be stressed than fathers but researchers warned against conclusions on cause and effect.
“It may be the case that infants with difficult temperaments demand more tolerance and patience from parents and are more stressful to deal with. It may also be that parents who are stressed may perceive their children to be more difficult to deal with.”
Dr Elizabeth Nixon from Trinity College Dublin, one of the report’s authors, said the findings showed a need to support parents with information, public health teams, depression screening, and income supports.
“These findings show that even from a very young age, the sensitivity that parents show when interacting with their babies is important for their development.
“Both mothers’ and fathers’ parenting behaviours can be negatively affected by stress and depression but babies can be protected from these potentially negative influences if sensitive parent-child interactions can be maintained.”
Frances Fitzgerald, the children’s minister, welcomed the research, saying it made clear how family influences had an impact on early development.
“The new Child and Family Agency to be established in 2014 will bring together key agencies to ensure children and families get the services they require in a timely and effective manner,” she said.
Growing Up In Ireland is a joint research project by Trinity and the Economic and Social Research Institute. It has been reporting on the progress of almost 20,000 children since 2006.
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