• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Thursday 06th June, 2013

The birth of a bouncing baby baseline

strong>When new parents announce the birth of their new bouncing baby boy or girl, a few basic facts follow: sex, weight, eye color, hair color, and name. These first few pieces of information tell friends and family all they need to know about this new little life. But is there really more to know? A team from Child Trends thinks so. They developed the Strong Start Index – possibly giving birth to a new bouncing baby baseline. Researchers and non-researchers alike can tell you that children’s opportunities are influenced by their parents’ and family’s circumstances prior to conception, during pregnancy, and at birth. Each baby’s particular mix of circumstances can set the stage for later success in life – with some mixes giving a stronger start than others. Knowing where each baby starts out could shape a range of intervention and prevention strategies to make sure more babies have a better chance at a happy and healthy life. As such, a team at Child Trends – a nonprofit research center that studies children at all stages of development – set out to identify a small set of critical family and parent factors measured at or shortly after birth that are related to the later prospects of US children. The Strong Start Index they developed was created from widely available, well-measured, and changeable variables: mother’s education, family income, mother’s age at first birth, and family structure at the child’s birth. Giving birth to the Strong Start IndexUsing data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, the team tested a long list of variables in different combinations to assess their relationship with children’s social, behavioral, educational and overall physical health outcomes at ages two, four, and five years. Thirteen variables were tested. They included the child’s birth weight, the pregnancy intentions of both parents, mother’s age at first birth, and her substance use during pregnancy. To refine the list of variables, the team consulted with other experts on child development and considered how practical it was to measure the variables at birth or shortly after (such as the current tracking of the factors in public databases).The team assessed the individual and combined relationships among each of these variables and several measures of child development, covering three key areas: social and behavioral outcomes, educational development, and physical health. Social and behavioral outcomes included the parent’s report of the child’s social skills, teacher’s report of child’s learning-related behavior, and both parent and teacher report of child’s acting out (referred to as externalizing behavior). Educational development was measured using a standardized assessment of preschool reading and math skills. The number of injuries, overall health status, number of hospitalizations, and a BMI-related weight risk measure were used to assess the physical health outcomes of the children. Based on their analysis, an index was formed from four strong parent and family factors: mother’s education, family income, mother’s age at first birth, and family structure at the child’s birth (whether the parents were married, cohabiting, or neither). These four variables assess different domains that each contributes to a strong start for a baby. Policy ImplicationsIn the US, babies’ circumstances at birth are measured one variable at a time – the most widely collected being birth weight. But a child’s development is affected by many factors. The combination of factors in the Strong Start Index, the Child’s Trends team argues, “better reflects the complex determinants already in play at the time a child is born and provides a useful portrait of the cumulative advantages and disadvantages experienced by a cohort of children in a given country.” The index can be used in the US to target programs aimed at providing high risk teens and other future parents with opportunities with for higher education, training for jobs to increase income, or information and services that help them delay their first birth. “The index could be a valuable tool for policy-makers looking for malleable characteristics that can be influenced by innovative policies,” says the Child Trends team. For example, they argue that “healthcare programs that reduce the cost of family-planning for low-income women or tax incentives that remove disincentives to marriage may be the catalyst necessary to move a child one level up the Strong Start Index, giving them, on average, the opportunity to have better social, cognitive, and health outcomes.” The index makes intuitive sense and the results of this study indicate that these measures can give a reliable indication of a baby’s circumstances at the start of his or her life. The newness of the index warrants further testing and a closer examination of its practical implementation. Nonetheless, the index could be a valuable tool that social service practitioners and policy makers can use to help give more babies a strong start.**********References: Moore, K.A., Steward-Streng, N.R., and Daneri, P. (2012). What Constitutes a Strong Start for Babies? Child Indicators Research, DOI 10.1007/s12187-012-9162-6.

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