Launch of New Report on Parenting and Infant Development

Posted on: 05 November 2013

The latest Growing Up in Ireland report from the National Longitudinal Study of Children focuses on infant development and the role of parenting and family contexts. The report was recently launched by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald.

Parenting and Infant Development investigates infants’ development at nine months of age and how their development is associated with parenting within families. The report also examines factors that are associated with parental sensitivity and stress in families. (A full download of the report is available here.)

It is the latest report from the Growing Up in Ireland study, which is a Government funded study following the progress of almost 20,000 children and their families. The study is being conducted by a consortium of researchers led by Trinity College Dublin and the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).

Authors of the Parenting and Infant Development report are Dr Elizabeth Nixon, Assistant Professor in Psychology, Trinity; Dr Lorraine Swords, Assistant Professor in Child and Adolescent Psychology, Trinity; and Dr Aisling Murray of the ESRI.

Speaking at the report launch Minister Fitzgerald said: “This research highlights the important role of parenting and family contexts for children’s developmental outcomes, and the impact of factors such as gestational age, birth weight and parental ‘sensitivity’ or parents’ ability to interact effectively with their infants. 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.  It is clear from this report how family influences are impacting on children at nine months of age.”

Dr Elizabeth Nixon, Assistant Professor in Psychology, Trinity, added: “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. The findings also show that parenting does not happen in a vacuum. 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.”

She also noted that: “Children who are born prematurely or who are of a low birth weight may be at risk of poorer developmental outcomes. However, it is possible that they just need more time to catch-up. The information that has been collected on these families when the children were three and five years will allow us to investigate further how these early experiences affect outcomes later in the child’s life.”

The latest findings from the Growing Up in Ireland show that:

  • Infant gestational age was one of the strongest predictors of infant development – being born prematurely was related to a lower overall development score. Low birth weight was also associated with delayed infant development.
  • Parents who were more sensitive in their interactions with their babies had babies with higher development scores. However, the magnitude of the association between parental sensitivity and infant development was relatively small.
  • Mothers and fathers reported less sensitivity with children who had difficult temperaments. Children who have difficult temperaments (i.e. are fussy and irritable) 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.
  • Parental depression was associated with lower levels of sensitivity for both mothers and fathers, although the strength of this relationship was greater for mothers.
  • For both mothers and fathers, high levels of parental stress were associated with lower sensitivity. It may be that stress depletes parents’ physical, emotional and psychological resources, making it more difficult for them to engage with their infants in a sensitive and responsive manner.
  • For both mothers and fathers, a significant association was found between higher levels of depression and higher levels of stress – parents who were depressed reported higher levels of stress.
  • A sense of support on the part of parents was associated with lower levels of parental stress. Support can either directly reduce the stress experienced by parents (e.g. by providing practical assistance) or can buffer the parent from being adversely affected by stress (e.g. by providing emotional support in times of stress).
  • Stress among mothers was strongly associated with a difficult temperament from an infant, with a slightly weaker association for stress among fathers. 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.
  • Greater relationship satisfaction for fathers in two-parent households was linked with lower levels of parenting stress.