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Working Moms May Be Helping Their Kids, Study Finds

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Moms who feel guilty about going back to work can give themselves a break—a new study suggests their kids may do better once they start kindergarten than children of women who stayed home.

The effects are strongest for low-income kids. And in wealthy families, the older wisdom may hold true—the kids of working moms did not fare as well as children of at-home moms.

It's only one study, and it contradicts a large body of older work. But the researchers, at Boston University, say it's one of the first to look at 21st-century moms and kids.

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"Moms going back to work when children are still babies may affect the children differently in contemporary society because there are so many more working women today with greater responsibility for their families' income," said Caitlin McPherran Lombardi of Boston College, who led the study. "Different cultural attitudes, more readily available and higher-quality child care and more fathers participating in childrearing are other possible reasons for the difference."

Lombardi and colleagues looked at data from a survey that started with 10,000 children born in the year 2001. Moms reported whether they had jobs, either fulltime or parttime, when the babies were 9 months old and again at age 2. Then the children were tested when they entered kindergarten, and their teachers were surveyed.

About a third—31 percent—of the mothers said they were not working for pay for the first two years of the child's life. Another 11 percent took jobs or started back to work when the kids were ages 9 months to 2 years, while 58 percent went back to work before the baby was 9 months old.

Read More More dads stay at home, but not necessarily by choice

The lower the income, the better the children did if their mothers were working, the survey found. High-quality childcare may explain it, Lombardi's team wrote in the journal Development Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association. For middle-class families, there didn't seem to be much difference between kids of stay-at-home moms and those who worked, while in the upper-income brackets the children of moms who did not do paid work fared better in kindergarten than the children of working mothers.

"Our findings suggest that children from families with limited economic resources may benefit from paid maternal leave policies that have been found to encourage mothers' employment after childbearing," Lombardi said.

The U.S. has very limited policies on guaranteeing mothers or fathers time off after having children. All that is legally required is the 12 weeks provided by the Family and Medical Leave Act, and that time off does not have to be paid. France guarantees three years, Britain guarantees more than a year and Canada guarantees one year.

Read MoreWork-life balance is stressing us out—at home

Maggie Fox, NBC News

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