It takes a village to raise a clever baby, research shows
When new parents, especially mothers, have a strong social network of friends to support them, their toddlers score better on cognitive tests than those with a smaller social network, researchers from the United States have found.
The findings of the research will be of interest to those curious about child development, or those in the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector who are keen to work with their parents and families to build capacity within their communities, and meet the requirements of Quality Area Six of the National Quality Standard.
Reuters Health, reporting on the study, said that the research built on existing studies which demonstrated that strong social ties to friends and family are linked to better behavioral and physical health outcomes for adults, and that infants’ and toddlers’ bonds with caregivers can have a lasting impact on children’s emotional, intellectual and social development.
However, prior to this new research being undertaken, little was known about how the interactions between caregivers and their social circle might influence early childhood cognitive development.
In the most recent research, 1,082 mothers and children involved in the University of Tennessee Health Science Center – Conditions Affecting Neurocognitive Development and Learning and Early Childhood project had data collected about them, in relation to the family structures, friendships and relationships of the groups, and test results from cognitive testing of children at age two.
Researchers found that mothers had an average of 3.5 friends in their social network. When mothers had more friends, their children had higher cognitive scores than when they had fewer.
Researchers speculated that mothers with larger social networks had more resources to draw upon, to lessen some of the burdens associated with parenting, with friend groups providing emotional support, tangible support (such as help with babysitting), and sharing knowledge with one another about community opportunities, such as high-quality childcare.
As a result of having a larger pool of resources to draw on, researchers said, parenting stress and improved maternal mental health may result, both of which are positively associated with strong cognitive development in children.
The study found that mothers with larger family support networks had children with lower cognitive test scores than women who had smaller family networks, with 75 per cent of those mothers studied having fewer than six people in their family support network.
Nearly 60 per cent of the mothers involved in the study lived with the fathers of their children, and knew many people in their community. The presence of fathers in the home, or connection to non friend community members did not appear to influence children’s test scores, researchers said.
Researchers acknowledged that external factors that may influence cognitive development, such as maternal age, maternal and paternal IQ, parental education levels and the child’s birth weight, noting they did not have access to data to assess these and other personal differences, such as history of depression, between mothers with large networks of friends and those with fewer.
Dr Mary Lauren Neel, a researcher not involved in the study, noted that the study also didn’t examine mothers’ coping mechanisms for juggling life with a new baby, and it’s possible that the effect of various social relationships might be explained by how these people help women manage stress.
However, Dr Neel said, when speaking to Reuters Health, the the results offer fresh evidence that mothers with friends they can count on and more social support may have an easier time managing parenthood.
“What’s exciting about this study is that it suggests that a child’s development could potentially be changed by enhancing a mother’s social networks of connection,” Dr Neel said to Reuters Health. “You might not be able to change where you live or how much money you make, but you might be able to expand your social network.”
The study can be read in full here.