The earliest years of a person’s life form a critical foundation for her future – in terms of health, relationships and  functioning in society.

Diet, play and learning are all important parts of that development, but there’s continuing research into the importance of social connections. That’s social connection between children; like the friends they might make at preschool as well as the wider social web formed by the child’s parents.

New US research aimed to find out how different social networks, particularly in mothers, affected their baby’s brain development. More than a thousand mothers were invited to participate in the research between 2006 and 2011, after giving birth to healthy babies.

The researchers collected information on the education level of the mother and father of each child, whether the parents lived together, the family’s size, how extensive the mother’s social network was, and how well they knew other people in their neighbourhood.

The investigators then measured each child’s cognitive development when they were two years old and adjusted their results to account for the socio-economic status of the households.

They found there were a few ‘social network’ characteristics that did seem to influence how the baby’s brain developed. When the mother had a larger social network, it led to better cognitive scores for the baby at two years.

How ‘enmeshed’ a family was in the neighbourhood (how many people they knew) didn’t seem to make a difference to cognition. Having a larger family (of six or more people) seemed to have a negative effect on cognitive development.

Whether the parents lived together didn’t seem to be a factor, though other studies have suggested there’s a link between both parents being under the same roof and better cognition scores in very young children.

Implications

The authors say that mothers who have lots of friends might have more opportunities for their kids to play with other children, which in turn can influence cognitive development. It could also be that stronger networks for the mum makes her feel more supported and able to tackle the challenges of parenthood with a strong safety net.

Last Reviewed: 20/01/2020

© Norman Swan Medical Communications.



References

Shin, et al (2019). Association of Maternal Social Relationships With Cognitive Development in Early Childhood. JAMA Network Open doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.6963.