Parents have some homework to do, according to new findings presented at the Pediatric American Society meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii, this weekend.

The research shows that 31% of U.S. parents know very little about the pace of a typical infant’s development, whether it’s when a child should start talking or begin potty training. The data is based on an analysis of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study’s Birth Cohort, a nationally representative sample of more than 10,000 9-month-old babies and their primary caregivers. Parents were asked to answer 11 questions, where those who got four or fewer correct were considered to have low-level knowledge.

While it may not sound like a big deal, experts say that this lack of knowledge can negatively affect parents’ interactions with their babies.

We asked study author Dr. Heather Paradis, a fellow in pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center, why so many parents don’t know what to expect after expecting and what they need to know about their babies’ development.

Why do so many parents lack knowledge about infant development?

I think that parents get parenting information from a variety of sources, from reading magazines and books … most importantly, parents look for information from their child’s doctors.

There’s a lot of information that’s out there about what to expect when people are pregnant, but I don’t know that there is quite as much information on what to expect about how your child grows and develops in the first years of life, and there’s a tremendous amount of change. This study was surprising in just how many parents don’t have knowledge of normal infant development.

Do you have a sense as to whether this is a new trend?

I think that a lot of emphasis in the past has been placed maybe on what we would call “high-risk” parents–those with a lower education, lower socioeconomic status. But one of the surprising things that this study showed is that it’s not only those parents we should be targeting, but it’s something we should expand to the general population of parents. Everyone could benefit.

What was one of the most surprising things the study revealed in terms of parents’ confusion?

The most surprising thing to me was not necessarily what knowledge they did or didn’t have, but how that knowledge translated into actual behavior, or observed interaction with the child. That connection is something lacking in previous studies. This study showed that parents who have higher knowledge of normal infant development were shown to have higher (quality) observed interactions with their children.

The other thing is that we looked at not only parent/child interaction but parents’ reports of frequency of what I would call enrichment activities, such as reading books with a child, singing songs. We know early enrichment activities with kids leads to higher IQs, earlier reading, better school preparation. The parents with the higher knowledge of normal infant development also had a significantly higher reported frequency of doing those enrichment activities with their kids.

What are the potential negatives?

Parents who have unrealistic expectations could misinterpret a child’s normal behavior and could respond inappropriately. An example would be like a mom who expects an 18-month-old child to sit still during an appointment. Eighteen-month-olds are normally curious. I would expect them to be wandering around the room. If parents are expecting a child to sit still on a chair for an entire appointment, they may take normal curiosity and interpret it as intentional defiance, rather than the normal curiosity it is. That could lead to inappropriate harsh discipline or the withdrawal of affection.

I think quite often parents maybe underestimate a child’s ability to pick up language skills. A lot of parents don’t think that it’s worthwhile to read a book to their infant, to their 2-month-old, and they definitely should be doing that, even if it’s to look at pictures and let the child hear the normal qualities of voice. They might not understand the words the parent is saying but they definitely understand what’s going on and the interaction going on between the two of them.

How should parents go about educating themselves?

Certainly, I think it’s an opportunity for pediatricians that, even during our brief office encounters with parents, we can potentially do something that can have a large impact on the way that parents and children interact. I do think that getting information from reputable sources, asking a child’s doctor for recommendations on books and Web sites to get high-quality information, is something parents could do.

Source: Forbes, NY