New research shows that mothers who are dissatisfied with their male partners spend more time talking to their infants -- but only if the child is a boy.
The findings, supported by Wellcome and the Economic and Social Research Council, are published in the Journal of Family Psychology.
To investigate the relationship between the quality of a couple's relationship and parent-infant talk, researchers from the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge studied 93 first-time, heterosexual parents and their interactions with their infants. According to Science Daily, the parents were asked about the quality of their couple relationship and how satisfied they were. The infants, at age seven months, were equipped with a wearable 'talk pedometer' that recorded naturalistic parent-infant talk for a full day with both parents at home.
Researchers took depression into account and found that the more dissatisfied a couple reported their relationship to be, the more the mother spoke to her infant. Mothers who reported the quality of their relationship to be 'low' used around 35% more words than a mother whose relationship was 'average' and started around 20% more conversations. However, these effects were only found with infant sons, not daughters.
As the content of the mother-infant talk was not analyzed, it's still unclear whether the mother was complaining to her infant or talking positively.
"It's possible that the mum is trying to compensate for the poor relationship she has with her partner by putting more time and effort into her relationship with her other close male social partner, her son," says Dr. Elian Fink from the Centre for Family Research and the Faculty of Education.
Regardless of infant gender, fathers showed significantly less overall talk and initiated fewer conversations than did mothers, even though the fathers are increasingly becoming involved in parenting and the recordings were taken specifically on a day when both parents were at home. However, the amount that they spoke to their infants was unrelated to the quality of the couple's relationship.
Dr. Fink hopes the findings will encourage parents to make a conscious effort to talk more to their infants, whether they are boys or girls.
"Parent-child interaction is important for a child's development, with conversation playing a particular role for the child's language development," she says. "Finding time to talk to children is very important. Using opportunities within the daily routine, such as mealtimes and bedtime, to have conversations with your child may help foster later child talk."