For a mother, being able to 'read' her baby's emotions or state of mind can be more important for the child's development than who she is and what she has, according to important new research sponsored by the ESRC.
An infant's family background affects its progress in predictable ways, but it is not the best means of anticipating later language and play skills, says a study of more than 200 mothers and their babies, led by Dr Elizabeth Meins, of the University of Durham.
Half the women involved had no education beyond 16, and were unemployed or in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs. But the study found that it was judging how well a mother understood how her baby ticked, not assessing her social and financial status, which gave the best steer as to the child's development.
Dr Meins said: "In recent years, largely through Government initiatives such as Sure Start, people have become increasingly aware of a link between poverty and delays in key areas such as speech and play. "But little was known about which aspects of such schemes may help, because the reasons for the link were poorly understood."
Now, the research team are passing on their findings to professionals working with children so that vital advice can be given to parents and vulnerable infants.
In the study, mothers who are good at 'reading' their off-springs' emotions and state of mind are described as being more 'mind-minded'.
Dr Meins said: "A priority is to help parents to be 'mind-minded' when interacting with their babies. Among other things, we are discussing with Sure Start colleagues, ways in which training can be given."
The study, which focussed on babies at eight, 14 and 24 months, included making videos of mother-and-child play sessions, and noting what was said by the women at the time. Comments were deemed appropriate if a mother appeared to be 'reading' her child correctly, such as remarking that the baby was content when quietly playing with a toy.
By contrast, some mothers appeared to misread their babies, for example, saying he or she was upset or tired when the child showed no signs of this.
At 24 months, the babies of mothers from poorer backgrounds scored less well in tests of language and play. And those in the lowest 10 per cent were more likely to have mothers in the lowest of the social and work brackets.
But while significant, the study says that these links were not strong. Factors such as how much support a mother had from family and friends, or whether she suffered from maternal depression, had little effect on the child's talking and playing abilities.
However, the study found a definite link between 'mind-minded' mothers and children's development by the age of two.
Youngsters whose mothers could 'read' their inner feelings had higher scores and were less likely to be in the bottom 10 per cent for development.
Dr Meins said: "The links between 'mind-mindedness' and children's language and play abilities were strong.
"This suggests that, regardless of background, social support or maternal depression, if a mother really understands her baby at eight months, it's an important indication of development by the age of two."