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.
Mothers are urged to try to understand why their baby is crying
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."
Recommendations for good parenting change with the seasons leaving mothers of new babies struggling to see the wood for the trees. Midwives, health visitors and grandparents all advocate totally different approaches and the barrage of advice that comes at new parents is not only overwhelming, but it can create immense feelings of guilt and confusion which ultimately quashes intuition. If the professionals would slow down and stop moving the goal posts we might stand a chance of becoming more baby centred.
D. Crisp, T. Wells, Kent
I think there is a level of choice that parents can use when parenting their own children. True, we may not all have had loving, secure upbringings, but we can choose to rise above that and provide a loving and secure environment for our own children. I think "mind-mindedness" is a very large part of raising a successful child. I have seen mothers (and fathers) with no clue about what their child needs and in turn some very confused babies.
C Cummings, Cincinnati, OH, USA
Being a mother myself, I don't have any doubts in my mind that the better you understand your child, more you help in his/her development and social skills. I thought we knew that already. But what makes researchers think that they can understand babies better than their mums?
Majlinda, Canterbury, UK
I doubt this was a very scientific study. My own two children expressed things very differently as babies e.g. feeling tired. I very much doubt that an 'expert' could have read my children as well as I could so what they would deem as inappropriate would almost certainly be false. However, I have seen excellent and poor parenting skills in both high and low social groups. Parenting skills are not related to social group - but isn't that stating the obvious?
Gillian BC, Milton Keynes
It can be very hard in the early days to 'read' your baby. Tracey Hogg's 'The Baby Whisperer' has a great section on how to understand what different cries mean. By looking at the type rhythm and pitch of cry combined with body movements you can normally tell what is up. I found this so helpful. I can't understand why the NHS book can't carry information like this.
J. Scrace, Paris, France
As a new dad who looked after my daughter at birth due to her mother's illness, and who has continued to be the main carer for her, I really wish there was more recognition of the role - and considerable empathic abilities - of men in relationships with babies/children. How about a report on the invisibility of men in reports about parenting?
Chris, Oxford, UK
Less socially skilled mothers themselves have usually NOT had good, responsive parenting. There is a lot of criticism of parents these days but the public doesn't seem to realise that good parenting is a learned skill. If you haven't had a good teacher yourself (a good parent) then you have little chance of just working it out as you go along. We need to support parents more not just criticise them and assume that they could do better if they only made an effort!!
Julia, Romford, UK
This seems a typical case of a correlation without evidence of a proper causal link between the correlating items. The child may show a higher score on the play and language test because it has inherited a higher level of intelligence from the mother who mind-reads more successfully. How many other alternative explanations of the findings might there be? Perhaps the authors have addressed these issues, but, if this is the case, the media do not seem to report this.
Astrid, Dundee, UK
While I appreciate that in many families the main carer is the mother, it's not always the case. Presumably the same findings hold true for single fathers or fathers who take an active role in childcare - it would be nice to see language reflecting this.
Simmo, Maidenhead, UK
I second the comment on baby sign language. We taught our son simple signs and, at 10 months, he could sign when he wanted more to eat/drink, a bath etc. It was a wonderful experience for all of us, and the joy on his face at being able to communicate was evident. He was a fast talker, too, so don't listen to people who say signing will take the place of talking, it encouraged him! (Now he is 8, and tops at reading/writing in his class).
S. Carroll, Boston, USA
We have invested in a book on signing for babies. It's a simplified version of the system the hard of hearing use, and allows a pre-vocal child to tell you what it wants or what is troubling it. I cannot recommend it too highly (make sure you get a British signing version not American) as so much frustration can be avoided so easily by using this. Smiling baby, not inexplicably grizzling baby!
How did the experts know they were reading the babies correctly? This is typical of the arrogant attitude taken by professionals towards parents and makes it harder to get real help if you need it.
J. Foster, Salisbury, Wilts