Low job satisfaction in working mothers increases the stress levels of their children, but spending longer in childcare can help overcome these effects, new research has shown.
In a study involving more than 50 nursery school children, researchers found higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol in children whose mothers found their jobs less rewarding, or left them feeling emotionally exhausted, than those who reported more enjoyment from their jobs.
Levels of cortisol in the evening were more than double in these children.
Yet for women who have low job satisfaction, the research suggests that placing their children in childcare would help to significantly reduce the stress experienced by their children.
The researchers also found that children from families that were either highly expressive or reserved also exhibited higher than average cortisol levels.
The report, published in the journal Developmental Psychobiology today (Monday 21 November 2005), suggests that greater support is needed for working mothers to help improve their job satisfaction and increase the availability of affordable childcare options.
The study was conducted by Dr Julie Turner-Cobb, a health psychologist and senior lecturer at the University of Bath, Dr Christina Chryssanthopoulou from the University of Kent and by Dr David Jessop, a neuroimmunologist at the University of Bristol.
To measure cortisol levels they took saliva samples in the morning and evening from 56 children aged three-four years old. They also surveyed mothers about their workplace conditions and home life over six months.
"Spending more time in childcare makes a big difference to the stress levels in children whose mothers have low job satisfaction," said Dr Julie Turner-Cobb from the University of Bath.
"It can help protect children from the effects of their mother's low job quality and emotional exhaustion. Ensuring that mothers of young children have good support in the workplace is essential for supporting both mothers and their children."
Dr David Jessop, from the University of Bristol, added: "Improving the job satisfaction of working mothers means that they are less stressed themselves, and extending the availability of affordable and adequate childcare may not only improve the quality of life for the mothers, but in doing so may improve the long term health of their children."
Cortisol is a steroid hormone which regulates blood pressure and cardiovascular function and immune function as well as controlling the body's use of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
Cortisol secretion increases in response to stress experience, whether physical (such as illness, trauma, surgery, or temperature extremes) or psychological. It is a normal and essential response without which we would not be able to function in everyday life.
But it is when these levels remain high or become disrupted in some way over a prolonged period of time that they may have consequences for health. It is important to promote healthy adaptation to stress in children and good quality childcare is one way of doing this.
The study is part of an ongoing research programme led by Dr Julie Turner-Cobb who is currently following up this work investigating how children adjust to starting primary school and the effect on cortisol production in a study funded by the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC).
The study was also funded by the University of Kent at Canterbury.