Early maternal depression predicts six-year-olds’ ability to focus, with longer term implications for their performance in school

Photo: Roberto Volterra. Creative Commons.

A study has found that infants’ exposure to their mother’s depression predicts poor ability to sustain attention and poor executive function when the child enters school at age six – deficits that were linked to insensitive parenting on the part of depressed mothers. Such children’s more limited abilities at school entry also predicted poorer cognitive and social/emotional behaviour in third grade at age eight.

Earlier research has linked maternal depression to lower academic achievement, lower social competence and higher rates of disruptive behaviour in children as they grow up. The new study offered an explanation for these links.

The study focused on two areas: children’s ability to sustain attention while carrying out a task and their executive function, which includes the ability to resist distraction, to inhibit irrelevant or inappropriate responses, to maintain relevant information in working memory and to plan sequences of actions.

Depressed mothers tend to be more hostile and insensitive and react negatively to a child’s distress. Insensitive parenting is disruptive to child development. It tends to increase the child’s arousal and reaction to stress, which can undermine the child’s ability to maintain focus. Insensitive parenting also disrupts development of the child’s prefrontal cortex, known to be linked to executive function. And insensitive parenting can undermine a child’s interest in the environment.

Inability to sustain attention and poor executive function at school entry predict poorer school performance two years later. This may be explained by the children’s reduced ability to persist in the face of challenges, to participate actively in classroom learning and to resist acting impulsively in a way that undermines social relations.

The study shows important links between early maternal depression and later childhood behaviour problems and points to the importance of addressing maternal depression early in development. Although the study did not control for the contribution of fathers, we recently reported on research showing that the nature of a father’s parenting significantly predicts the link between early maternal depression and later outcomes for the child and family.

Wang Y & Dix T (2017), Mothers’ depressive symptoms in infancy and children’s adjustment in grade school: the role of children’s sustained attention and executive function, Developmental Psychology