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Why mothers who are ‘happier in themselves’ make more successful parents

They say money can’t buy you happiness – but it seems that being ‘happy in yourself’ can make you a more successful mum, regardless of your financial circumstances.

And the good news is that when parents find a way of improving their wellbeing their parenting improves, even when the amount of money they have available for the family doesn’t change.

Scientists, working together from the University of Bristol and the University of Warwick, found that – while money is obviously of vital importance to families – it’s not the key ingredient when it comes to successful parenting.

The team used data from the Bristol-based Children of the 90s study who sent out questionnaires to over 11,300 parents living in the South-West when their children were aged eight months. They were contacted again, shortly before their children’s third birthday (at 33 months old) when information was collected from 9,687 parents.

Lead researchers Professor Sarah Stewart-Brown and Dr Andrea Waylen used this data to explore which factors influence parenting in early childhood. Parenting was measured by mother's report of enjoyment, confidence, pleasure, fulfilment with respect to caring for the child, dislike of the child's crying and surrounding mess, and lack of time for herself.

The research is now published in the Child: care, health and development journal. Professor Sarah Stewart-Brown from Warwick University said, “We know from other research that if you look at 2 families with the same levels of income the mum who is ‘happier in herself’ will be the more successful parent.

“What our study did was to follow up those same families again. Results showed that those mums who became ‘happier in themselves’ compared to their own rating from two years earlier were also caring for their toddlers in ways which are more beneficial for children’s wellbeing and development.

“What strengthens this finding is that we also found the converse; when mum’s reported that their wellbeing had declined their parenting had also taken a turn for the worse.” 

“When we looked at poverty we did not find that parents whose financial circumstances improved were parenting in a more beneficial way when their children were 33 months old.”

Dr Andrea Waylen, from the University of Bristol added, "Poverty is obviously a key issue that already attracts a great deal of research and a raft of policy interventions – and rightly so. However, there is much less concern for parent’s mental health.

“Policies are needed to address both issues but our research suggests that the gain for children from policies to support parent’s mental health is likely to be of more benefit to children.”

Notes for Editors:

  • Academic journal reference: Factors influencing parenting in early childhood: a prospective longitudinal study focusing on change: A. Waylen and S. Stewart-Brown Child: care, health and development Vol. 36 Issue 2, pages 198-202. 
  •  ALSPAC The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (also known as Children of the 90s) is a unique ongoing research project based in the University of Bristol.  It enrolled 14,000 mothers during pregnancy in 1991-2 and has followed  the children and parents in minute detail ever since.
  • The ALSPAC study could not have been undertaken without the continuing financial support of the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust, and the University of Bristol among many others.

For Further Information Please Contact:

Professor Sarah Stewart Brown
Warwick Medical School, University of Warwick
Tel: 024 7657 4510

The Children of the 90s Press Office at the University of Bristol – Anne Gorringe or Sally Watson on 0117 3310077

 Or: Peter Dunn, Head of Communications, University of Warwick, tel: 02476 523708, or 07767 655860