By Lisa Rapaport

(Reuters Health) – When new mothers have friends ready to step in and help them, they have toddlers who score better on cognitive tests than the babies of women with smaller social support networks, a U.S. study suggests.

Strong social ties to friends and family have long been linked to better behavioral and physical health outcomes for adults. And plenty of previous research also indicates that infants’ and toddlers’ bonds with caregivers can have a lasting impact on children’s emotional, intellectual and social development.

But less is known about how the caregivers’ own social connections might influence early childhood cognitive development.

For the current study, researchers examined data on 1,082 mother-child pairs. They questioned women about their family structure, friendships and relationships in their communities and also looked at test results from cognitive assessments done when kids were 2 years old.

Overall, mothers had an average of 3.5 friends in their social support networks. When they had more, their kids had higher cognitive test scores than when they had fewer.

“Outside the family context, mothers with larger social networks may be able to draw on resources from those networks that alleviate some of the burdens associated with parenting,” said study co-author Kaja LeWinn, a psychiatry researcher at the University of California San Francisco.

“This may include emotional support, tangible support in the form of babysitting or help with errands, and the transfer of knowledge around high-quality day care or other childhood programs,” LeWinn said by email. “These resources may reduce parenting stress and improve maternal mental health, both of which are positively associated with child cognitive development.”

About 75 percent of the mothers in the study had fewer than six people in their family network, including all adults and children living in their homes. Mothers with larger families had kids with lower cognitive test scores than women with smaller families, the study found.

Almost 60 percent of the mothers lived with the fathers of their children and knew lots of people in their neighborhoods. These two factors didn’t appear to influence children’s test scores after researchers also accounted for poverty levels.

All of the families in the study lived in the area around Memphis, Tennessee, and it is possible that results might be different elsewhere.

The study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how mothers’ social support networks might directly affect children’s cognitive development.

The researchers accounted for some factors that might influence child cognitive development, including mother’s age and IQ, father’s education level and the child’s birth weight. But they did not have data to assess other personal differences, such as history of depression, between mothers with large networks of friends and those with fewer.

Another limitation is that researchers lacked data on the quality of relationships mothers had with the different people they interacted with regularly.

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, said Dr. Mary Lauren Neel, a researcher at the Ohio State University and Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus.

Still, the results offer fresh evidence that mothers with friends they can count on and more social support may have an easier time managing parenthood, Neel, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.

“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,” Neel said. “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.”

SOURCE: JAMA Network Open, online January 11, 2019.