STRESS, depression and money problems endured by thousands of Irish families can affect babies as young as nine months old and harm their development.
A major study to be published today on how 11,000 five-year-old children are developing has found that parental stress can result in less sensitivity towards children, meaning parents are less likely to respond to their needs and help them in times of distress.
The Growing Up in Ireland 'Parenting and Infant Development' study from the ESRI and TCD says stressed parents could be hampering their children's development, resulting in problems developing motor and social skills.
And while household income has no bearing on how the average nine-month-old develops, financial pressures coupled with a lack of supports can have a negative outcome.
Co-author of the report, Dr Elizabeth Nixon, said being tuned into the needs of the child and being able to read signals was an "important skill", but that stress levels impacted on the ability to read these signals. "What this analysis does is highlight some of the processes which feed into how infants are doing," she said.
"We're identifying things like parental stress and depression and their effect on parenting.
"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.
"Parenting is a challenging task. The reality is it may have nothing to do with what the parent is doing, the child may be, by their nature, more difficult. It's about the parents learning about how their baby is and appreciating them as individuals. What works for one baby, may not work for another."
The study was based on interviews with the parents of over 11,000 nine-month-old children. The children and their families have been interviewed twice since.
Researchers looked at a range of development milestones including motor skills, such as crawling and grasping items, social skills such as co-operating with parents when getting dressed and communication skills including vocalising sounds and making associations between words and objects.
The study found that premature babies took longer to develop than those born at full-term, but notes that most children would catch up. The age of the child at birth – if they were premature – had three times more influence on outcomes than parenting.
It also found:
* Mothers in one-parent households have higher levels of stress.
* There was no difference between one and two-parent households, as measured by infants' personal, social, motor or problem-solving skills.
* Stress among mothers was commonly associated with fussy and irritable children, resulting in the parent being less likely to be sensitive to their needs, which in turn caused more irritability.
* Mothers tended to become stressed about money, but not fathers. Women also became stressed about a lack of support from family and friends.
* Fathers stressed about the relationship with their partners, which impacted on parenting.
"The most important predictor for fathers' stress was the quality of the relationship," Dr Nixon said.
"It points to the important role that mothers have to play in supporting fathers' parenting. Mothers can play a role in supporting or undermining fathers' parenting."
While differences have emerged in how children from different economic backgrounds develop – for example those from lower-income families tended to have better communication skills, while those from more prosperous families had better social skills – the differences were "very small".
"What matters is relationship and interactions between the family. Obviously, if families are in economic difficulty, it does have an impact but children can be protected.
"You don't need money to have a good relationship and lots of positive, stimulating reactions," she added.