Maternal mental health

How mothers feel matters because maternal mental health affects child behaviour and development.

Findings from the Growing Up in Scotland study (GUS) show that maternal mental health can affect child behaviour and development. The findings highlight the importance of supporting parents beyond the post-natal period.


GUS is the longitudinal research study which is tracking the lives of thousands of children across Scotland from birth through to their teens. The families taking part in the study were selected at random and have been visited once a year until their child is nearly six to collect information on a wide range of topics, including parental health and child health, development and behaviour. Information from GUS is used by the Scottish Government and others to develop policies and services for young children and their families.

The findings

We found that that almost one third of mothers in Scotland had experienced poor mental health at some point during the first four years of their child's life. Mothers who had experienced poor mental health when their babies were around ten months old were more likely than those who were emotionally well to have prolonged or further bouts of mental ill-health.

Mothers with poor mental health were more likely to be living in poverty and/or in areas of deprivation. In addition, mothers experiencing repeated mental health problems were more likely than others to report relationship difficulties and more likely to lack support from friends, family or from within the local community.

Mental health was found to have an impact on some aspects of child development. In general, children whose mothers were consistently emotionally well had better social, behavioural and emotional development than those whose mothers experienced brief mental health problems. In turn, children whose mothers had short spells of emotional ill-health had better development than those whose mothers had repeated mental health problems over some time. These relationships remained even after taking account of family characteristics and socio-economic factors.

These findings suggest that the relationship between maternal mental health and child outcomes may be causal; that is, the mother's mental health problems are a causal factor in the child's poorer outcomes. This may be due to the negative impact that poor mental health can have on parent-child attachment which in turn affects a child's development.

For cognitive ability, child cognitive development at age three was not significantly associated with maternal mental health after other factors such as socio-economic and family circumstances were taken into account.

Claudia Martin and Louise Marryat from the Scottish Centre for Social Research, the authors of the report, conclude that 'identifying and supporting mothers with mental health problems beyond the post-natal period may have a direct impact on young children's development and well-being and could enhance children's early school experiences' .

Download the full report or summary briefing

GUS is funded by the Scottish Government and is carried out by the Scottish Centre for Social Research in collaboration with CRFR and the MRC Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, Glasgow.