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A team of researchers including Ulster’s Dr Orla McBride are set to test innovative approaches to a major new UK-wide study that will follow babies born in the 2020s over many decades to understand how societal circumstances and events affect them.

Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation, the new study will help researchers understand the challenges facing a new generation of babies, born at a time of great uncertainty, in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit. In particular, the study will provide new insights on childhood inequalities and the social and biological factors driving these.

The study will develop and test the design, methodology and viability of a full-scale Early Life Cohort Study that is likely to follow participants for more than 70 years, starting from 2024.

The Early Life Cohort Feasibility Study will be led by Professor Alissa Goodman, and Professor Lisa Calderwood of UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies, and Professor Pasco Fearon of UCL Psychology & Language Sciences. The study team includes Ulster University’s Dr Orla McBride and researchers from the universities of Swansea, Edinburgh, Queen's University Belfast, and Manchester Metropolitan.

Birth cohort studies involve repeated surveys of thousands of individuals – who were all born at around the same time – from early childhood and throughout their lives.

The aim of a new Early Life Cohort Study is to understand how children born in the 2020s are affected by the circumstances in which they grow up. These could include household structure, parents’ economic status and, in later waves of the study, children’s peer groups and experience of schooling. Circumstances such as these have been affected profoundly by major societal changes and events since the turn of the century.

Such changes include the lasting effect of the 2007-8 financial crisis and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Increasingly complex family structures and dynamics, a changing world of work and education, the digital revolution, climate change, and changing health and mental health challenges, all create questions that new data is required to answer.

Dr Orla McBride, School of Psychology, Ulster University commented:

“I am delighted to be involved in this UK-wide feasibility study which will provide vital information about babies being born across the UK, including those from typically under-representative groups. Our study will provide new evidence on the factors that affect development in the first year of life.

“Birth cohort studies help us understand the lives of different generations of children as they grow up and help us link experiences in childhood to experiences and outcomes throughout the rest of their lives. These findings can then be used to shape public policy and improve the lives of future generations.”

ESRC Interim Executive Chair, Professor Alison Park, said:

“The last group of children to be included in a UK-wide birth cohort study are the participants in the Millennium Cohort Study born in 2000-2. This is now a generation ago.

This creates a pressing need for data collection on the next generation: those born in the 2020s. Indeed, new research agendas and political and social issues – such as climate change, mental health issues, air quality, and the effects of the pandemic – heighten this need.

The Early Life Cohort Feasibility Study announced today will be a relatively small-scale study, both in duration and cost. But it will be a critically important step to establishing the design of a full early life cohort study.”

Parents of babies will be selected from across the UK to be invited to participate in the study, ensuring it is inclusive and representative of children being born.

The study is expected to run from 2021 until 2023.