Childhood trends improving in us, but obesity and low birthweight are serious concerns


Childhood trends improving in us, but obesity and low birthweight are serious concerns


A new report on trends in early and middle childhood in the US suggests that a number of health, wellbeing, education, family and social indicators are improving, but there are one or two critical areas where things are seriously wrong, such as the childhood obesity crisis and the rising number of low birthweight babies.

The report, titled "Trends in Infancy/Early Childhood and Middle Childhood Well-Being, 1994-2006", is a Foundation for Child Development's Special Focus Report, and is available from today, 24th April, as a download.

The report comes from the Foundation for Child Development Child and Youth Well-Being Index (CWI) Project, which produces a composite index of trends in the wellbeing of American children over their first ten years of life.

It is the first to put together a comprehensive picture of young children's overall health, wellbeing and quality of life.

The Foundation for Child Development (FCD) publishes its Child Well-Being Index every year. From 1994 up to 2002 the index shows significant improvements, and then becomes relatively stable.

Within this overall improving trend, there were rapid improvements for adolescents in areas such as falling rates of violent crime, substance use (including alcohol and tobacco), and teenage pregnancies. What was not clear however, was the extent to which these improvements were responsible for the overall improvements in the child wellbeing index.

The FCD therefore invited Kenneth Land, from Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, to examine more closely the indicators of wellbeing for children from birth to age 5 (early childhood), and from age 6 to 11 (middle childhood).

Land and colleagues used traditional CWI indicators and also new indicators to find out how the younger age ranges were doing, and to ask if everything that could be done was being done. The new indicators looked at things like whether a parent ate with their child every day, whether children had rules about watching TV, as well as prenatal care and reading level at age 5.

Altogether they analyzed 25 key national indicators spread across 6 quality of life domains, from 1994 to 2002. The indicators were examined for three age groups: Infancy/early childhood (birth to age 5), Middle childhood (6 to 11), and Adolescence (12 to 17).

The six domains were: Health, Economic Wellbeing, Educational Attainment, Safety and Behavioral Concerns, Social Relationships, and Community Connectedness.

The data came from the US Census, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Education Statistics, and other sources.

Land and colleagues found that:

  • Overall improvements occurred across all age groups: early childhood, middle childhood and adolescence.
  • The overall trends during 1994 to 2002 for all three groups are similarly positive.
  • However, the health indicators show a "dramatic decline", because they are "dragged down" by the rising obesity rates, and the rising number of low birthweight babies.
  • Studies have shown there is a link between low birthweight babies and women having babies later in life. Another possible reason is the increasing use of fertility treatment which increases multiple, lower weight births.
  • There are four times more obese American 6 to 11 years olds today than there were in the 1960s.
  • This figure is three times more for age 2 to 5.
  • Some aspects of health are improving, driven by falling infant and child mortality, probably due to better prenatal and healthcare, nutrition and seat belt legislation.
  • Other reasons that may be responsible for improving child health, are falling numbers of mothers who smoke when pregnant, less blood lead poisoning, and more vaccinations.
  • Safety is also going up. The rate of child homicide victims (up to the age of 11) has gone down dramatically, and for the age group 6 to 11, the figure has halved.
  • The proportion of 6th grade children who report feeling unsafe at home or at school has also gone down.
  • Educational achievement is also going up, and one reason given is the rise in 4 to 6 year olds who enroll in full-day kindergarten.
  • Reading and math ability among 9 year olds has improved over the 12 year period, as established from standardized tests.
  • More parents are reading to their children every day and establishing ground rules for TV viewing.
  • However, family economic wellbeing is predicted to decline in the future.
  • This has been steady in recent times, but if the economic scenario of the last 12 months, characterized by job loss, the house financing crisis, and increased inflation, persists, then this will impact children of all ages.
The report suggests that:

"It is important to invest in children's well-being from as early as birth to prepare children on the path to success throughout their lives."

It also points out the importance of balancing policy and good parenting. Effective policies are making a difference, for instance making playgrounds safer, and reducing lead poisoning.

Future areas for good policy making, suggests the report, are in targetting childhood obesity through controlling school lunch menus and encouraging exercise.

Click here to download full report (PDF).

"2008 Special Focus Report: Trends in Infancy/Early Childhood and Middle Childhood Well-Being, 1994-2006."

Kenneth C. Land, et al

The Foundation for Child Development, New York, 25th April 2008.

Sources: The Foundation for Child Development.


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Section Issues On Medicine: Medical practice