PARENTING
12/24/2014 10:44 am ET Updated Dec 29, 2014

Study Pinpoints One Big Factor In A Child's Early Life That Can Have A Lasting Impact

With all the child development research out there, figuring out which methods to follow can be crippling. Should you embody helicopter parenting? Ban TV? Enforce regular bedtimes?

But a new study suggests that parents may want to focus on one major influencer: sensitivity during a child's first few years. Researchers argue that a kid's social and academic abilities can be stifled all the way into adulthood if they don't receive sensitive caregiving.

According to the researchers, sensitive caregiving is "the extent to which a parent responds to a child's signals appropriately and promptly, is positively involved during interactions with the child and provides a secure base for the child's exploration of the environment." In other words, it's interacting with a child in a gentle, attentive way that shows the caregiver understands the child's needs.

Published this week in the Child Development journal, the study used data from the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation to track how maternal sensitivity during the first three years of life affected people as adults. Mothers of participants were living below the poverty line when they were recruited during their third trimesters. After their babies were born, researchers followed the 243 participating tots until they were 32 years old.

To begin the study, researchers observed each of the babies with their mothers in feeding and play situations four times during their first 42 months. Throughout childhood and adolescence, teachers provided evaluations of how the children interacted with peers, and how the children performed on standardized tests. Researchers then interviewed the participants when they reached their 20s and 30s to discuss their romantic relationships and educational achievements.

So what did the researchers find after following these kids for nearly 30 years?

"Early caregiving was as strong of a predictor of success in adulthood as it was during the years of childhood," Lee Raby, a post doctoral researcher at the University of Delaware and co-author of the study, told The Huffington Post.

Participants with mothers who were intrusive, hostile and/or disengaged -- rather than sensitive -- during their early years were more likely to spend their childhood and adolescence displaying poorer peer relationships and lower test scores. As grown ups, they were also more likely to attain lower levels of education and have trouble maintaining functioning romantic relationships.

On the other hand, participants who experienced sensitive maternal caregiving were generally more successful in their social and academic pursuits throughout the study. Their relationships were more likely to be marked by levels of commitment, loyalty and intimacy that were absent in the group who didn't get the same attention in early life.

Even though the study's sample mothers were living below the poverty line when they were recruited, Raby said he's pretty confident that the results are generalizable to families without economic difficulties. His findings build on a previous study which also suggests that a lack of sensitive caregiving predicts problematic social and academic outcomes. That study only followed participants until they were 16 years old, but included a sample beyond families in relative poverty.

The new research, however, shows that these effects can endure into adulthood without waning -- the participants in the recent study were just as affected by the lack of sensitive parenting at 32 as they were during childhood and adolescence.

Raby noted that the data in his study is correlational, so more research is needed to determine whether or not programs that support parental care during the first few years of children's lives will actually make a difference. For now, parents may want to understand the importance of simply being sensitive to children's cues.

"One of the things these findings may mean is that early parent/child and early caregiving experiences have lasting consequences for children's success in school and in relationships," Raby said. "These effects don't go away as individuals get older and as they transition into more adult roles."

HuffPost

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