Research suggests that early intervention to
support families with babies in their first year has the long-term potential to
cure many of society’s ills – a message that the government has at least
partially recognised, writes Liz Kendall.
We have known for a long time that
children’s early years can have a major impact on their later life chances. New
research suggests that the first year of life, including months before birth,
may be particularly important.1
There is now clear evidence linking low birth weight
with later outcomes in childhood and adult life. The Medical Research Council
has shown that low birth weight babies are more likely to grow up with a low
cognitive ability compared with babies born at a higher birth weight. Research
from abroad has linked low birth weight with adult ill-health, such as coronary
heart disease. Birth weight is determined by several factors, including a
mother’s health and diet before and during pregnancy. Income has a major role
to play here – studies show that mothers who are reliant on state benefits may
not be able to afford a healthy diet.
Research on the beneficial impact of breast
feeding has been growing over recent years. Breast feeding has been shown to
reduce the likelihood of infant mortality and to decrease the incidence and
severity of childhood infections. It has also been shown to protect against
adult diseases. For example, babies fed with breast milk are less likely to
suffer from high blood pressure than those who are not. Cognitive development
also appears to be linked to breast feeding. A Scandinavian study found that
children who were breast fed for less than three months were more likely to
achieve lower scores for cognitive development at 13 months old than children
who were breast fed for six months or more. However, despite considerable
efforts to encourage breast feeding in the UK, rates have remained static for
the past 20 years with a strong disparity between social classes and ethnic
New research from the US indicates that
pregnancy and the first year of life are critical to brain development.2
During this period, a child’s brain is “wired” to match his or her daily
experiences. The amount of stimulation babies get – how much they are talked
and read to, played with and encouraged – can influence language development
and later reading ability and numeracy skills. Again, socio-economic factors
play a significant role. Studies have found significant differences in the
range of vocabulary that babies of more affluent parents are exposed to compared
with those whose parents are less well off. Reasons for these differences
include parents’ own reading abilities, and amount of money spent on books.
Two key factors underlie the new evidence into
this early period of life. The first is that poverty and disadvantage can harm
early child development and that the effects can persist into adult life and
across the generations. However, it is important to stress that the
associations between poverty, disadvantage and later outcomes are in no sense determinist:
risk is not destiny.
Which leads to the second factor: the
importance of parents’ roles. Parents can clearly help protect their children
against the risks of poverty and disadvantage. However, while much has been
written about what constitutes good or bad parenting, it is difficult to
isolate what makes a good parent let alone develop interventions which alter
parenting in ways that affect children’s subsequent development. Too often
policy makers and the media seek to find simplistic answers to difficult
questions about parenting.
One such question is the impact of mothers
working during their children’s early years. Some studies suggest that maternal
employment while children are under one year old may have a detrimental effect
on child development. Others claim that good quality child care during the
first year of life actually benefits child development, leading to higher
scores in tests of cognitive and language development. Most of the evidence on
this issue comes from the US; we know very little about the sorts of child care
UK parents want or use during the first year of life.
There is no doubting the government’s
commitment to tackling these issues. A range of policies are being implemented
to help meet the government’s target of abolishing child poverty
by 2020 such as the New Deal, increases in child benefit, the minimum wage and
tax credits, including the child and baby tax credits. In addition, programmes
such as Sure Start are seeking to enhance and co-ordinate services for toddlers
in deprived areas.
Yet major challenges remain. The first is to
reach parents much sooner. And there are still serious gaps in the provision of
early preventive services, despite the government’s efforts in this area.3
The second is to improve information and
support for parents. Surveys show parents think services are too often focused
on the process of giving birth or on the baby and fail to give families the
information they really want about what it is like to become a parent.
Thirdly, while public policy should be guided
by what’s best for children, it also needs to support parents whatever the
situation they are in. Not every mother is able or chooses to breast feed. Not
every mother wants to or can stay at home during their child’s early years.
Practitioners need to recognise this
and develop responses to support parents, whatever decisions they take.
Finally, the government should consider
shifting the focus of its child poverty strategy specifically to pregnancy and
the first year of life. This is not to say that it should stop funding
interventions further down the line now, but because the earlier the
intervention the more effective it is. And there is a case over time for a
significant shift in resources upstream.
Liz Kendall is associate director at the
Institute for Public Policy Research.
1 This article draws on evidence outlined in The
First 12 Months: a Literature Review, available from www.ippr.org.uk
2 JP Shonkoff, DA Phillips (eds), Neurons to
Neighbourhoods, National Academy Press, Washington DC, 2000
3 C Henricson et al, National Mapping of
Family Services in England and Wales,
National Family and Parenting Institute, 2001
The current preoccupation with youth crime and antisocial behaviour has
led policy makers to forget the positive contribution they can make to young
people’s lives, writes Tom Wylie.
is understandable that politicians want to help youngsters spend their leisure
time constructively, get a decent education, avoid unwanted pregnancy, eat
sensibly. But a general drive to have teenagers stay at home after dark, not to
mention stop them troubling the neighbourhood watch by "hanging
about"? Aren’t we just going a little too far in this endless,
officially-promoted steering of young people?
Of course, some youngsters need more help and
guidance than others. Some need well-focused programmes to confront their poor
behaviour. Others will benefit from the direct individual support of a learning
mentor or from the "new profession" of a Connexions personal adviser.
But, in a social policy environment supposedly shaped by evidence-based
practice, there seems to be a singular lack of research on the factors which
lead to success in such interventions.
What we need is a whole-hearted attempt to
foster young people’s confidence and creativity; to help them make informed
choices and contribute to the lives of others – their peers, their families,
their communities. There is no shortage of prototypes. We can see it in
"Youth Bank", the young people-led grant-giving body; or in the
various community action projects celebrated by the Philip Lawrence Awards. Or
in the variety of youth forums and councils across the country or in the host
of local music-making or video projects. Such projects rarely get the sustained
support needed to go from prototype into production. Whitehall is obsessed with
new-ness. Longevity, proven worth, sustainability have gone out of fashion.
Young people do not only need individual support but a range of opportunities
for their development as people and as members of society. Rebuilding the UK’s
youth services would help.
Action on crime, certainly, but let’s hear
less talk about young people’s capacity for idleness, drunkenness or
misbehaviour. We need a youth policy framework which will transform existing
youth services to focus on young people’s development, and their active
citizenship. And a politics that does not demonise whole age groups because of
Tom Wylie is chief executive of the National