Maternal Depressive Symptoms Are Related to Lower Cognitive Scores in Early Childhood
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Myriam Al Bcherraoui
· 7 min read

Children of mothers with high depressive symptoms are at a greater risk for slow cognitive development

Cognitive development in childhood is affected by a number of variables, including genetic, biological, social, and psychological factors all which are subjected to vary with broader environments such as poverty, culture, norms, and parenting behaviors. Moreover, mothers’ sensitivity, responsiveness, and emotional warmth towards infants have been found to be related to infants’ cognitive and social-emotional abilities.

Mothers who experience depressive symptoms find it difficult to exhibit warmth towards their infant, and consequently increases the likelihood of negative parenting behaviors including impatience, low sensitivity, hostility and overall negative parent–child interactions (Lovejoy et al. 2000. Depressive symptoms are greatly prevalent among mothers, and are often worsened by co-occurring factors such as partner violence, traumatic experiences, illnesses, poverty, food insecurity, and child malnutrition. There are various factors that are associated with depressive symptoms during pregnancy, such as; history of depression, poor overall health, increased alcohol use, smoking, single parent, unemployment, and low educational status. Maternal depressive symptoms incline mothers to be less sensitive towards her child and exhibit greater negative interactions compared to mothers with less or no depressive symptoms.

In a meta-analysis of 14 studies that reviewed the literature on maternal depressive symptoms and young children’s cognitive development revealed the existence of a statistically significant relationship between maternal depressive symptoms and child cognitive development.

• The average cognitive score for infants, between 6-8 weeks, of mothers who had high postpartum depressive symptoms were 4.2 points lower on the Mental Developmental Index (MDI) of the Bayley Scales of Infant and Toddler Development (BSID) compared to children of mothers with few or no depressive symptoms.
• Children’s risk for later cognitive and language difficulties is increased with exposure to prenatal, postnatal, and chronic depressive symptoms increased.
• Children with mothers who exhibit high depressive symptoms are at risk for slow cognitive development.

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One might wonder how exactly does maternal depressive symptoms compromise infants’ and toddlers’ cognitive development. In general, depressive symptoms include social withdrawal and lack of sensitivity, both of which may hinder a mother’s responsiveness to her infant’s developmental needs and cues such as providing early learning activities. For instance, mothers might not recognize an infant’s signal for interaction. Depression also negatively influences maternal energy and cognitive functioning, which in return interferes with their ability to offer appropriate care. Besides feelings of sadness, the loss of interest in everyday activities that is coupled with depression may decrease mothers’ motivation to expose their child to new and stimulating environments that will support cognitive development. Although social support and has been found to alleviate postpartum symptoms of depression, withdrawal and isolation symptoms of depression may decrease social support from others.

In conclusion, maternal depressive symptoms are related to lower cognitive scores in early childhood. In order to improve cognitive development, interventions must address maternal depression through various means.

• Providing access to effective mental healthcare during pregnancy up to a year after childbirth in order to decrease the suffering among women and promote positive interaction with their infants.
• Screening for maternal depression within pediatric care may assist in the identification of women at risk.
• Addressing nutritional status, families’ access to healthcare, parental educational level, and strengthening economic security, especially among underprivileged communities.
• Fostering responsive caregiving behaviors and supporting early childhood development.


Liu, Y., Kaaya, S., Chai, J., McCoy, D. C., Surkan, P. J., Black, M. M., ... & Smith-Fawzi, M. C. (2017). Maternal depressive symptoms and early childhood cognitive development: a meta-analysis. Psychological medicine, 47(4), 680-689.