A large proportion of children are born to young (<21 years of age) mothers. These mothers often have challenges related to socioeconomic and educational disadvantage, and this can result in additional parental and family stress.
Does this affect the cognitive and mental health of their children in any way?
Liam Cresswell and colleagues from the University of Ottawa, University of British Columbia, and McMaster University wanted to look at this question, and so they reviewed the literature and conducted a meta-analysis. This week, Pediatrics is early releasing their results and an accompanying Video Abstract, entitled “Cognitive and Mental Health of Young Mothers’ Offspring: A Meta-Analysis” (10.1542/peds.2022-057561).
The authors reviewed the data for 51 outcomes from 35 articles, representing more than 375,000 offspring of young mothers; the ages of the offspring ranged from 6 months to 40 years.
There is a lot of detail about these 51 outcomes in this article, which I encourage you to read. But in short, the children of young mothers did not fare well in comparison to their counterparts who had older mothers.
The children of young mothers were more likely to have cognitive and learning problems, starting from infancy and extending through adolescence. Adolescents had higher rates of ADHD and school delinquency. Even in adulthood, the differences persisted – adult children of young mothers were more likely to be convicted of violent crimes.
The authors do note that all of the analyses in this meta-analysis were unadjusted, and so confounding factors were not accounted for. Additionally, you cannot determine causation in an analysis such as this. In an invited commentary, Dr. Hana Smith and Dr. Bethany Ashby from the University of Colorado note that a large proportion of young mothers are from minoritized populations; the additional impacts of structural racism and micro- and macroaggressions compound the challenges for these children and their parents (10.1542/peds.2022-058142).
We must be cognizant of this context when we see these patients. Proactive approaches, such as early connections to resources, including home visiting, mentoring, and parenting programs, may help to mitigate some of these challenges.