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Thousands of babies to join new national study of child development

31 May 2022

Families across England are set to make history from next week as they join the first new national birth cohort study of babies to be launched in more than two decades, at a time of huge significance for the country as it emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Portrait of mother and baby boy read book in bed at home. Mum with son.

The study will be led by UCL researchers in partnership with Ipsos and the universities of Cambridge and Oxford and Birkbeck, University of London. Tens of thousands of letters are now being sent out across the country to more than 8,000 parents and their babies, inviting them to take part in the nationally representative “Children of the 2020s” study.

Commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE), the study will follow children during the first five years of their lives, and potentially beyond, shedding new light on the factors that can influence their development in the early years.

The evidence gathered will answer important scientific and policy questions, which will help inform decisions about early years and childcare services and improve the lives of families with young children in England.

With their babies now nine months old, the families randomly selected to take part will soon be visited by the study’s interview team, starting from next week, to answer questions about their child’s development, family circumstances and their own lives.

Study director, Professor Pasco Fearon (UCL Psychology & Language Sciences and the University of Cambridge) said: “We are extremely excited to start meeting with families next week for the first new birth cohort study of babies in England since the millennium.

“More than 75 years ago, the first British birth cohort study, which is housed at UCL, was launched to track the lives of babies born just after the war. And now, Children of the 2020s will provide vital evidence about the early years as families navigate their way out of the COVID-19 pandemic and through the cost of living crisis.”

Children of the 2020s joins UCL’s rich portfolio of cohort studies, which follow the lives of people born in 1946, 1958, 1970, 1989-90 and 2000-02.

Funded initially for five years, parents will be asked about their child’s development, their neighbourhood and family context, family structure, health and mental health, the home learning environment, and formal and informal childcare provision and preschool education.

Between the surveys, the research team will invite parents to use a smartphone app to log their baby’s language and development, while receiving news and tips from the team of experts.

With parents’ consent, routine administrative data, held by government departments, such as family health, educational and social care records, will be linked to their survey data, enabling researchers to gain a more detailed picture of participants’ lives.

Professor Fearon added: “Our first five years are a crucial developmental period in our lives, - every new experience can play a pivotal role in how we fare later on.

“This new study will investigate how children develop and the circumstances and early years services that can make a difference. By understanding how these factors impact their development, we can learn how to support them, so they are able to make the best start at school and flourish as they are growing up.”

Children and Families Minister, Will Quince MP, said: “This is an important study that will provide an insight into the crucial early years of a child’s life and a wealth of evidence about their development and educational outcomes. We know the pandemic has created unique challenges for families and I’d like to thank the thousands who will be participating in this study over the next five years.

“We are committed to supporting families, including through a multi-million-pound package to transform services, which will create Family Hubs in half of all local authorities and provide important advice to parents and carers through the Start for Life offer.”

Speaking ahead of a visit to UCL last year to learn about the new study, Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Cambridge said: “Our early childhoods shape our adult lives and knowing more about what impacts this critical time is fundamental to understanding what we as a society can do to improve our future health and happiness.

“The landmark Children of the 2020s study will illustrate the importance of the first five years and provide insights into the most critical aspects of early childhood, as well as the factors which support or hinder positive lifelong outcomes.”

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Media contact 

Evie Calder

Tel: +44 (0) 7858 152143
E: e.calder@ucl.ac.uk