Does mothers’ employment affect children’s development? Evidence from the children of the British 1970 Birth Cohort and the American NLSY79


  • Elizabeth Cooksey Ohio State University
  • Heather Joshi Institute of Education, University of London
  • Georgia Verropoulou University of Piraeus



Key words, Maternal employment, child outcomes, cognitive development, behavioural adjustment, maternity leave, BCS70 second generation survey, NLSY79 second generation survey, intergenerational transmission, full/part-time employment, US-UK comparison.


Background: The increasing employment of mothers of young children in the UK and the USA is believed to affect children adversely. Maternity leave and part-time employment, more common in the UK than the US, are possible offsets.

Methods: This paper analyses the cognitive and behavioural development of school aged children by maternal employment before the child’s first birthday. Data come from the second generation of two cohort studies: the 1970 British Birth Cohort Study (BCS70) and the US 1979 National Longitudinal Study of Youth Child (NLSY79). Both contain several outcomes per child, in some cases several children per mother. The hierarchical structure is tackled by multi-level modelling. The BCS70 provides data back to birth for the mothers we study, and the NLSY79 started collecting data from mothers in their early to mid teens, thus supplying a good array of controls for confounding variables (such as maternal education and ability, family history) which may affect labour market participation.

Results: Similar to other studies, results are mixed and modest. Only two out of five US estimates of maternal employment in the child’s first year have a significant (0.05 level) coefficient on child development – negative for reading comprehension, positive for freedom from internalized behaviour problems. None of the estimates were significant for four child outcomes modelled in Britain.

Conclusions: There is little evidence of harm to school-age children from maternal employment during a child's infancy, especially if employment is part-time, and in a context where several months of maternity leave is the norm.



Author Biographies

Elizabeth Cooksey, Ohio State University

Associate Director of the Center for Human Resource Research, and Principle Investigator of the NLSY Youth and Child-Mother data collections. Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Institute of Education, London.

Heather Joshi, Institute of Education, University of London

Director, Centre for Longitudinal Studies,Institute of Education.

Georgia Verropoulou, University of Piraeus

Lecturer in Demography and Statistics, University of Piraeus,  Research Associate, Centre for Longitudinal Studies. Institute of Education, London.