(Good Medical Health) – According to a US study, when new mothers have friends who are willing to help and support them, toddlers perform better on cognitive tests than infants of women whose social support networks are more restricted.

Close social ties with friends and family have long been associated with better behavioral and physical health outcomes in adults. And many previous studies also indicate that infant and toddler relationships with caregivers can have a lasting impact on the emotional, intellectual and social development of children.

But less is known about how caregivers' social connections might influence cognitive development in early childhood.

For this study, researchers examined data from 1,082 mother-child pairs. They interviewed women about family structure, friendships and relationships in their communities and also examined the results of cognitive assessment tests conducted when children were 2 years old.

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

"Outside of the family context, mothers with larger social networks may be able to tap into resources from these networks that alleviate some of the burden associated with parenting," said Kaja LeWinn, co-author of the 39, study, researcher in psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco. .

"This may include emotional support, concrete support in the form of childcare or help with running, and knowledge transfer around high quality nurseries or other programs intended to children, "said LeWinn by email. "These resources can reduce parental stress and improve the mother's mental health, two factors that are positively associated with the cognitive development of the child."

About 75% of the mothers in the study had fewer than six people in their family network, including all adults and children living at home. The study found that mothers from large families had lower cognitive test scores than women from smaller families.

Nearly 60% of mothers lived with their children's fathers and knew many people in their neighborhood. These two factors apparently did not affect children's outcomes, as researchers also took into account poverty levels.

All families participating in the study lived in the Memphis, Tennessee area, and the results may be different elsewhere.

The study was not a controlled experiment designed to prove whether mothers' social support networks could directly affect the cognitive development of children.

Researchers have identified some factors that may influence children's cognitive development, including the age and IQ of the mother, the level of education of the father, and the birth weight of the child. But they did not have data to assess other personal differences, such as a history of depression, between mothers with large networks of friends and those with fewer friends.

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

The study also did not examine the coping mechanisms of mothers to juggle a newborn, and it is possible that the effect of various social relationships will explain how these people help women cope with stress, "said researcher Dr. Mary Lauren Neel. at Ohio State University and the Columbus National Children's Hospital.

Nevertheless, the results offer new evidence that mothers with friends they can count on and stronger social support could help manage parenting, said Neel, who was not associated with the study, by e-mail.

"What's interesting about this study is that it suggests that a child's development could possibly be changed by strengthening a mother's social connection networks," said Neel. "You may not be able to change your place of residence or income, but you may be able to expand your social network."

SOURCE: bit.ly/2G4uJJW JAMA Network Open, online January 11, 2019.