Four in five primary caregivers of nine-month-old babies reported cuddling, talking and playing with their little one several times a day, in England's first national long-term study of babies in over two decades, led by UCL (University College London).
More than half engaged in physical or turn-taking play, singing, pretend games and noisy play with their babies several times a day -- activities which were linked to improved early language development. Around three quarters showed their babies picture books or took them outside at least once a day.
For just over one in 14 (7.4%) of these babies, most of those daily interactions will be with their father, who is their primary caregiver. Just 20 years ago, only one in 1,000 (0.11%) of nine-month-olds were cared for primarily by their dad at this age.
The first report from the Children of the 2020s study, published today by the UK Department for Education (DfE) and led by UCL in partnership with Ipsos and the universities of Cambridge and Oxford, and Birkbeck, University of London, revealed that these home activities are having positive effects on babies' understanding of common words, like 'ball', 'bye-bye' and 'mummy', as babies that played more with caregivers understood more words at this age.
Overall, nine-month-olds understood an average of 14 out of 51 common words. This was similar to pre-pandemic norms, despite added pressure on today's families.
The findings also showed that parents are navigating significant challenges in their babies' first months, with a quarter facing at least some financial strain and around a fifth reporting seeking help from a doctor for feelings of depression since the birth of their child.
Commissioned by the DfE, Children of the 2020s is following more than 8,500 families and their babies, born in England between September and November 2021. It is the first long-term, nationally representative study of babies since the UK Millennium Cohort Study was launched more than 20 years ago. Children of the 2020s will follow families for at least the first five years of their children's lives, shedding new light on the factors that can influence early years development. The first survey took place when the babies were, on average, nine and a half months old.
The first findings from the study paint a picture of a new generation of infants and their families.
Play and language development
Access to healthcare services
Study director, Professor Pasco Fearon (UCL Psychology & Language Sciences and the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge), said: "We are extremely excited to unveil these first findings from the landmark Children of the 2020s study, the first new national study of babies to be launched since the millennium. These vital new insights reveal the dramatic shifts in our society over that time, with fathers taking a greater role in parenting and parents more likely to be balancing caring responsibilities with work and parental leave.
"As the first post-Covid study of families with babies, Children of the 2020s shows the many challenges parents are now facing as they deal with rising costs, health and mental health difficulties, and issues accessing public services. There are, however, very encouraging signs of resilience, with parents showing how engaged they are with creating a healthy home learning environment for their children, spending a substantial amount of time interacting positively with their babies and helping to develop their early language skills."
A Department for Education spokesperson said: "The department commissioned this research to better understand early childhood development factors which will help shape policy decisions. We are encouraged by many parents engaging in activities like reading and play, recognising its importance in early development.
"Understanding the pressures many households are under, we've expanded free school meal eligibility several times since 2010, to more groups of children than any other Government over the past century. This is in addition to offering record financial support averaging £3,300 per household, implementing our transformational childcare reforms, increasing the National Living Wage, and providing help for households with food, energy and other essential costs."
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