Poverty, maternal depression linked to slowed early development

November 19, 2001

Higher income seems to compensate for obstacles to early development seen in young children with depressed mothers. But the effect is different for boys and girls, a new study reports.

The study, published in the November/December issue of the journal Child Development, also suggests that chronic depression in mothers has a greater effect than short-term depression on early childhood development.

Previous studies have shown that both maternal depression and poverty have a negative effect on young children, slowing their cognitive development and predicting behavioral problems.

This study found that boys and girls from poor families with depressed mothers had delays in cognitive and motor development. But the adverse effects of maternal depression were generally smaller in middle-class households, says lead author Stephen M. Petterson, Ph.D., of the University of Virginia's Southeastern Rural Mental Health Research Center.

The study included data on 7,677 mother-child pairs collected in at birth in 1988 and at age 3 in 1991. Depression was more common in poor mothers in the study, affecting 24 percent, compared with 14 percent of nonpoor mothers.

Overall among families whose incomes were below the federal poverty level, children had significantly more developmental and behavior problems if their mothers were depressed. In contrast, among middle-class families, children with depressed mothers had developmental scores that were not significantly different from those of other affluent children.

"Maternal depression and poverty jeopardize the development of very young boys and girls and, to a certain extent, affluence buffers the deleterious consequences of depression," Petterson says.

However, girls differed from boys in relation to this finding. Among the group of more affluent families, girls whose mothers suffered from moderate depression scored significantly lower on cognitive measures than did girls whose mothers were not depressed.

"Although not conclusive, the results suggest that affluence does not buffer the negative effects of severe maternal depression for both boys and girls," the researchers say.

The authors also found that living in a household below the poverty level had a greater effect on cognitive development than on motor development. In fact, scores for motor development were actually lower for boys from the more affluent families than those in poor families, Petterson says.
The study was funded with a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Child Development is the bimonthly peer-reviewed journal of the Society for Research in Child Development. For information about the journal, contact Jonathan J. Aiken at 734-998-7310.

Posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health http://www.cfah.org. For more research news and information, go to our special section devoted to health and behavior in the "Peer-Reviewed Journals" area of Eurekalert!, http://www.eurekalert.org/jrnls/cfah/. For information about the Center, call Ira Allen, iallen@cfah.org 202-387-2829.

Center for Advancing Health

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