Greater supports for parents with depression or stress and more help for women at risk of giving birth to premature or low birth-weight babies are recommended in the latest Growing Up in Ireland report published today.
The report, based on the study since 2006 of 11,000 children from the age of nine months, highlights the role of parenting and family contexts in child development.
"Even from a very young age, the sensitivity that parents show when interacting with their babies is important for their development," says co-author, Dr Elizabeth Nixon from Trinity College Dublin.
“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.”
For both parents, a significant association was noted between higher levels of depression and higher levels of stress. Maternal stress was strongly associated with difficult temperament in a child, though this was less pronounced in the case of 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," the report states.
Greater relationship satisfaction for fathers is linked to lower levels of parenting stress, it says. “Although stress may impact on marital relationships, the findings also highlight the potential for a positive marital relationship to buffer parents from stress.”
In contrast, the income in a household was found to have no significant association with parental stress.
Depression is associated with lower levels of sensitivity among fathers and, in particular, mothers. Stressed parents, and parents who work, also tend to be less sensitive, but being a single parent has no impact on mothers’ sensitivity, according to the study.
"It may be that stress depletes parents' physical, emotional and psychological resources, and renders it more difficult for them to engage with their infants in a sensitive and responsive manner."
A child's gestational age is one of the best predictors of development outcomes: being born prematurely is related to lower development scores. Having a low birth-weight or a difficult temperament is also linked to poorer outcomes.
In contrast, “sensitive” parenting is associated with higher outcomes, although the effect is weak. “It may be that infants who experience sensitive caregiving feel more confident in exploring their environment, which might confer benefits in terms of their cognitive, language and social development, or that [such] parents who are more sensitive also provide their infant with more stimulation and learning opportunities.”
The report finds parents tend to be less sensitive when dealing with temperamentally difficult children. It speculates that such children may evoke fewer positive interactions from parents, which may in turn lead to even high levels of infant irritability.
It highlights the need for health policies to help mothers take care of themselves during pregnancy and support premature and low birth-weight babies. Such cases should be targeted early and supported by home visits from public health nurses.
Interventions should also focus on ameliorating parental stress and depression, it says.