May 5, 2008 -- If little babies could talk, their first words might not be terms of endearment, but rather something more like "Mommy, get a clue!"
Couples are bombarded with information about what to expect when expecting, but new research presented Sunday at the Pediatric Academic Societies meeting in Honolulu suggests that when baby makes three, about 31% of parents in the U.S. are stumped when it comes to knowing how their little one should be behaving and developing.
"There are numerous parenting books telling people what to expect when they're pregnant," Heather Paradis, MD, a pediatric fellow at the University of Rochester Medical Center, says in a news release. "But once a baby is born, an astonishing number of parents are not only unsure of what to anticipate as their child develops, but are also uncertain of when, how, or how much they are to help their babies reach various milestones, such as talking, grabbing, discerning right from wrong, or even potty-training."
Such a lack of knowledge can result in poor parent-child interactions and unrealistic expectations. Some parents may interpret behaviors incorrectly and respond in the wrong way. For example, some moms and dads might think their baby should be doing more at an earlier age, while others underestimate their child's abilities, preventing them from learning on their own.
Few studies have formally addressed how parental knowledge of infant development influences parent-child interactions. For the current study, Paradis and colleagues questioned the primary caregivers of more than 10,000 9-month-old babies to distinguish informed parents from less-informed ones. Sample questions included: "Should a 1-year-old child be able to tell between right from wrong?" and "Should a 1-year-old child be ready to begin toilet-training?"
Researchers considered a parent to have a low-level knowledge of typical infant development if they scored 4 or less out of 11 correct answers.
The parents received additional scores while the team videotaped them teaching their child a new task and by self-reporting how often they read books, sang songs, or told stories to their child.
The researchers compared all the scores and found that 31.2% of parents had low parenting knowledge. And the knowledge appeared to be tied to a parent's education and income level. Lower levels of knowledge were associated with lower levels of education and income.
A lack of parental knowledge robs kids of much-needed cognitive stimulation, the researchers say. Parents who do not understand how a child is expected to grow and develop are less likely to engage their children in enrichment activities such as reading, singing, and storytelling.
"This is a wake-up call for pediatricians," Paradis says. "At office visits, we have a prime opportunity to intervene and help realign parents' expectations for their infants, and in turn, promote healthy physical, social, and emotional development for these children. On the other hand, we still have more work cut out for us -- additional research is needed to explore how these unrealistic expectations form in the first place."