How a mother reads her baby’s emotions may be more important for the child’s development than the family’s social status, researchers say.
The findings will be used to inform the work of initiatives such as the Sure Start, which provide support to new parents.
A team from the Economic and Social Research Council studied more than 200 mothers and their babies.
Half of the women left school at 16 and were unemployed or in low-skilled jobs.
The interplay between mothers and their babies was assessed when the babies were at eight, 14 and 24 months old.
The researchers made videos of mother-and-child play sessions, and noted what was said by the women at the time.
The mother’s comments were deemed appropriate if she appeared to be “reading” her child’s emotions correctly, such as remarking that the baby was content when quietly playing with a toy.
Other mothers seemed to misread their babies, perhaps by saying he or she was upset or tired when the child showed no signs of this.
When the babies were assessed at 24 months, those born to mothers from poorer backgrounds did score less well in language and play tests.
The researchers also found that those in the lowest 10% were more likely to have mothers in the lowest of the social and work brackets.
But the researchers, led by Dr Elizabeth Meins of the University of Durham said, even though these links were significant, they were not strong.
Factors such as post-natal depression and how much support the mother had were found to have little effect on the child’s talking and playing abilities.
But the researchers said they did find a definite link between mothers who could read their baby’s emotions – labelled as “mind-minded” mothers – and the development of children by the age of two.
Infants whose mothers fell into this category had higher test scores and were less likely to be in the bottom 10%.
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.”
‘It takes time’
Dr Meins told the BBC News website being ‘mind-minded’ could also help mothers: “Obviously some babies are more difficult than others.
“But what we found is that if you try and see if there’s a reason why your baby might be crying, rather than it simply being a random event, it might help you cope.”
She said the new information about the importance of maternal intuition would help inform the work of initiatives such as Sure Start.
But she added: “Little was known about which aspects of such schemes may help, because the reasons for the link were poorly understood.”
Dr Sandra Wheatley, of the British Psychological Society, said the findings fitted in with what was known already.
And she added: “It makes sense that how well you get on with your family, and how loved and understood you are will give you a better grounding then having millions of pounds in the bank.”
But she said new mums should not expect to be immediately able to understand their babies.
“It takes some time to get to know somebody, whether it’s a colleague or a friend – or your baby.
“You may have been carrying them for nine months, but you don’t know them instinctively.”