Academic journal article Population

Large Child Cohort Studies across the World

Academic journal article Population

Large Child Cohort Studies across the World

Article excerpt

Researchers first began tracking cohorts of children in the years following World War II. Their efforts were initially rather sporadic and it was not until the 1990s that large numbers of child cohort studies were launched in different countries, notably the United States, Canada and Australia. Great Britain is largely credited with pioneering longitudinal studies of representative samples of children on a national scale. The first such study, the 1946 National Birth Cohort, received the backing of the Royal College of Obstetricians and the Population Investigation Committee, and the data collection was funded by the Nuffield Foundation and the National Birthday Trust Fund. Encompassing all children born between 3 and 9 March in England, Scotland and Wales, it was designed to help British institutions and government bodies, not least the Royal Commission on Population, address various health and social policy issues, such as the reasons behind the fall in fertility since the mid-nineteenth century and the prevention of infant mortality and preterm births.

Three other large-scale longitudinal studies of children have since been conducted in Great Britain. The first two were set up at intervals of twelve years (in 1958 and 1970) and shared the same aims, so that trends could be monitored across cohorts. The most recent cohort, known as the Millennium Cohort Study, was launched after a much longer interval, in 2000/2001. It has slightly different scientific objectives and a resolutely multidisciplinary approach. The design and characteristics of these four British longitudinal studies remain a benchmark for other countries that have embarked on child cohort projects. The latter have generally been set up to improve existing knowledge about early childhood, children's psychomotor development, preterm births, and the links between infant mortality and social environment.

Child cohort studies worldwide are many and various, although their primary objective in every case is to track children's development by monitoring their health status and investigating their family, social and economic environment. The differences reside in the scale of these projects, their structure and the way they develop over the long term, in terms of their objectives, methodology, funding and academic stakeholders. Each cohort study therefore has its own story to tell and needs to be placed within its country's historical, scientific and political context. These factors account, at least in part, for their complexity and originality. The characteristics of fourteen major child cohort studies currently being conducted worldwide are presented in the Appendix, along with a further six studies specializing in either epidemiology or education, which constitute a key resource for research on childhood and can enhance our knowledge of survey methodology.

I. A diverse range of child cohort studies

It was in the 1980s that a number of health and social science disciplines started to adopt a longitudinal approach, the idea being that an individual's health, psychomotor development and social environment can only be properly understood if information is collected regularly throughout childhood. The various contexts of socialization (family circle, daycare, school, etc.), family cultural practices and living environments all change in the course of childhood, sometimes bringing major changes in their wake. The aim is therefore to record events, states and interactions that occur at different times in a child's life, since adult outcomes can only be observed and understood in relation to the history and evolution of each individual's health and social environment. We also know that, due to their lack of maturity, children are more sensitive than adults to environmental agents, meaning that certain types of exposure can have long-term consequences (Grandjean and Landrigan, 2006; Grandjean, 2008). Longitudinal follow-up is the only means of measuring accumulated exposure to specific environmental conditions and assessing their consequences in terms of health and social inequality. …

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