Research suggests dissatisfied mums talk more to their baby boys

A new study from researchers at the University of Cambridge has suggested that mums who are unhappy with their male partners spend more time speaking to their infant boys.

A baby can put significant strain on an already tense relationship between the parents, but it has yet to be decided whether this has an impact on the child's own early development.

Developmental outcomes such as behaviour and education are related to the quality of the parents' relationship, but parent-infant talk has yet to be properly examined until now.

Researchers from the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge studied 93 first-time, heterosexual parents and their interactions with their babies.

The study's findings have been published in the Journal of Family Psychology.

Parents were quizzed on the quality of their romantic relationship and how happy they were, and then gave the infants at age seven months a wearable 'talk pedometer' to record naturalistic parent-infant talk.

Researchers used software to provide analysis of the frequency of adult spoken words to their infant and of parent-infant 'conversations'.

Depression was taken into account in the study, and researchers found that the more dissatisfied a couple's relationship was, the more the mum spoke to her baby.

Mums who reported the quality of their partnership to be 'low' used around 35 percent more words than a mum whose relationship was 'average' and started around 20 percent more conversations.

These results were only seen with baby boys, not baby girls, strangely. The content of the mum-infant talk was not analysed, so we don't know if the mum was complaining or speaking 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.

"What is particularly interesting is that mums only seem to compensate when they have infant sons, not daughters. It could be that mums view their daughters as mini versions of themselves rather than of their partners."

Dads showed far less overall talk and initiated less conversations than mums, despite the fact that dads are increasingly becoming more involved in parenting. 

"Even when dads spend more time around their infants, this doesn't necessarily mean they are interacting with them more," adds Dr Fink.

"One possible reason may be that there's still an imbalance in who responds to the basic care needs of their infant. So, for example, if it's the mother who still shoulders the burden of changing the nappy, this at least offers an opportune time to engage in direct communication with her infant."

Dr Fink is hoping that the study's conclusions might encourage parents to make more of an effort to talk to their babies, no matter what their biological sex is.

"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."