The Effect of Stress on Developmental Trajectories: Empirical Evidence from Peru

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In this dissertation I examine the relationship between early childhood development (ECD) and stress. In the first chapter I conduct a comprehensive and systematic analysis of the various streams of research that have pushed the frontier of knowledge on the formation of human development in recent decades to compose a holistic portrayal of development that takes place during early life, analyze the role of quality parental care and stimulation as enabler or inhibitor of ECD, and discuss how stress can set children on sub-optimal developmental trajectories. The essay highlights the direct and indirect channels through which stress can affect ECD and the extent to which poor children are particularly vulnerable to it. The second chapter investigates empirically the link between maternal depression and children’s physical growth during early life in Peru. I find suggestive evidence that maternal depression negatively affect childhood growth, and that the size of such effect is not trivial. Evidence in this essay suggests that maternal depression hinders maternal engagement, which in turn could lead to sub-optimal care practices that lead to worse nutritional outcomes. The third chapter is concerned with the relationship between maternal depression and child cognitive development in Peru. Results indicate that while the effect of temporary cases of maternal depression in the sample is negligible and statistically insignificant, the effect of chronic cases of depression is sizable and statistically significant, and persists over time. When the impact of maternal depression is analyzed separately by gender and maternal education level, there is evidence of worse effects for boys, as well as for children of mothers with incomplete primary school. All three chapters discuss the policy implications of the current knowledge of the effect of stress on ECD, which, even if incomplete, is compelling enough to warrant intensifying efforts to shelter children from stress, particularly during early childhood and in low-income settings.