How maternal depression can lead to developmental vulnerability in kids

September 16, 2020

The mental health of immediate family members can have an impact on the remaining family. A recent report offers insight on how maternal depression impacts a child’s development.

The past decades have brought greater insight into how mental health issues can lead to suboptimal physical health outcomes. The research has also provided some information on how the mental health of family members can impact the rest of the family. A recent report in Pediatrics offered a look at how exposure to a mother’s depression before reaching the age of 5 years could influence developmental vulnerability.1

Investigators ran a cohort study that included every child born in Manitoba, Canada who had completed the Early Development Instrument between 2005 and 2016. Physician visits, pharmaceutical data, and hospitalizations were used to define maternal depression. The Early Development Instrument was used to define the developmental vulnerability.

The study’s sample included 52,103 children. Investigators found that the children who had been exposed to maternal depression when they were aged younger than 5 years had a 17% higher risk of showing at least 1 developmental vulnerability at the time of school entry, when compared to the children who did not have an exposure to maternal depression before age 5 years. Exposure to maternal depression was found to be most strongly linked with physical health and well-being (adjusted relative risk [aRR] = 1.28; 95% CI: 1.20–1.36), emotional maturity (aRR = 1.27; 95% CI: 1.18–1.37), and difficulties in social competence (aRR = 1.28; 95% CI: 1.20–1.38). Exposure to maternal depression before age 1 year and between ages 4 to 5 years was found to have the strongest tie with developmental vulnerability for most of the developmental domains.

The researchers concluded that children who had exposure to maternal depression were at greater risk for showing developmental vulnerability when they entered school. The finding was consistent with previous research on the topic. The researchers said that further research on the topic should focus on what has made children resilient when exposed to maternal depression, in an effort to identify factors that could help prevent other children from dealing with developmental vulnerabilities.


1. Wall-Wieler E, Roos L, Gotlib I. Maternal depression in early childhood and developmental vulnerability at school entry. Pediatrics. 2020;146(3):e20200794. doi:10.1542/peds.2020-0794