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Early Mother-Child Separation, Parenting, and Child Well-Being in Early Head Start Families

While it is well known that traumatic or extended separations negatively impact child development, even week-long separations that occur within the first two years of life have lasting consequences on child behavior.

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  • N: 3,001
  • Subject Ages: 1/4 unborn; 1/4 ages 6 months or older; 1/2 birth to age 6 months
  • Location: United States, 17 different Early Head Start program locations
  • SES: Low income
  • Eligibility: Children ages birth to 2, when children rely on physical proximity as the primary indicator of their mothers’ availability


  1. Early mother-child separation would be related to maternal behaviors such that children who experienced separation would have mothers who were generally less sensitive and positive toward their children at age 3 than children who did not experience separation.
  2. Mother-child separation during the first two years of life would be negatively related to children’s subsequent socioemotional and language development.
  3. The effects of separation on children’s development would persist such that effects observed at age 3 would still be evident at age 5.
  4. Early mother-child separation would covary with measures of family and household instability during the child’s first two years of life.

Variables Measured, Instruments Used

  • Early mother-child separation of one week or more in the previous year - author questionnaire
  • Maternal parenting behaviors at child age 3 - three measures drawn from the Home Observation for Measurement of the Environment (HOME)
  • Child outcomes at ages 3 and 5 -
    • Aggressive behavior: the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL)
    • Negativity toward mother: author observational scale
    • Receptive vocabulary: the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test
  • Early household instability - author questionnaire
  • Baseline demographic characteristics - author questionnaire

Design—RCT, longitudinal



Controlling for baseline family and maternal characteristics and indicators of family instability:

  1. The occurrence of a mother-child separation of a week or longer within the first two years of life was related to higher levels of child negativity at age 3 and aggression at ages 3 and 5.
  2. The effect of separation on child aggression at age 5 was mediated by aggression at age 3, suggesting that the effects of separation on children’s aggressive behavior are early and persistent.
  3. While it is known that traumatic or extended separations can negatively impact children’s development, the present study suggests that even relatively minor separations of a week or more that occur within the first two years of life are not entirely without adverse consequences for children’s development. Although more information is certainly required about the physical and emotional contexts that might buffer the effects of separations on children’s development, it is clear that a mother’s physical accessibility during the first years of life has important implications for supporting positive child development.


  • Lack of information on caregiving arrangements during the separation
  • Lack of information on the quality of care that the child received during the separation
  • Future research should consider the examination of these additional characteristics in order to strengthen the causal interpretation about the role of separation in predicting children’s behavior:
    • Infant characteristics, such as temperament
    • Maternal personality characteristics or emotional well-being during the prenatal period