Early Life Cohort Feasibility Study

The Early Life Cohort Feasibility Study will collect data on a new generation of UK-born babies in their first year of life, capturing information about their economic and social environments, and their health, wellbeing and development. The main aim of the project is to test the feasibility of sampling and recruitment for an innovative new UK-wide birth cohort study. However, the data from the feasibility study itself will also be made available to the research and policy community.

The study is managed by the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies, with support from a consortium of partners. It is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Consultation on content and design

Find out more about the consultation process and its outcomes

18 July 2022

We consulted extensively on the scientific content and design of the study. The consultation has finished, and the study team’s response to the feedback is now available.

Study aims

The Early Life Cohort Feasibility Study (ELC-FS) aims to paint a nationally representative picture of the circumstances and lives of a new cohort of babies born at a critical time in the UK’s history. With the economic and social repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the impacts of Brexit on our economy and society still unknown, the need to understand the challenges facing this generation of babies, their development as children and their future prospects is pressing.

The primary scientific aim of the study is to understand how inequalities in early child development are changing over time, and to learn whether the social and biological factors driving these trajectories are evolving. The key scientific themes include:

  • Cognitive, social, and emotional development of infants;
  • Infant-parent relationships, and the early home environment;
  • Infant health, including growth, nutrition and sleep;
  • Mental health of parents and the developing child;
  • Social, environmental and neighbourhood influences on infant and family;
  • Inequality, disadvantage, and social mobility;
  • Genomics, early adversity and biological embedding of stress.

Study design and content

The ELC-FS will draw a nationally representative sample of babies born from all four UK nations, and aims to recruit several thousand families. The age at which first data collection will take place, subject to the availability of the sampling frame, will be when babies are around six months old.

Data collection will involve interviews with mothers and fathers, and saliva samples (from parents) and cheek swabs (for infants) for DNA extraction will be collected from an experimental sub-group to test the impact on participation.

The feasibility of innovative measures to capture babies’ development will also be tested, comprising neuro scientific measures (looking-time task, eye tracking, mobile EEG to measure brain activity, together with use of an actimetry device), and measurement of the early language environment (through placement in the home of a LENA recording device). We will also test additional infant biosamples (hair samples) and infant anthropometry (weight, length, head circumference and adiposity). These feasibility of collecting these specialist objective measurements using trained fieldwork agency staff will be assessed via small scale field tests, separate to the main data collection.

The study design will also enable linkage to electronic and other administrative records of babies, parents, and potentially siblngs, as well as to geo-environmental data, which can provide information on environmental and other conditions in the places they spend time, including homes, childcare locations, and hospitals.

Representativeness and inclusion

The study design focuses on maximising participation of traditionally ‘less often heard’ populations.

In England, there will be sample boosts for babies born into disadvantaged and ethnic minority families, and further boosts of births in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We will use experiments to test the effectiveness of different levels of incentives for taking part.

We will engage fathers into the study, including those living in their own households, and will develop tailored engagement and recruitment strategies for other less often heard groups, such as babies born to young mothers, immigrant families, premature and low-birth weight babies, and twins and other multiple births.

We are also working together with experts to understand how best to engage babies who are extremely vulnerable in the study, including children born into care.

Public engagement

The project team is undertaking careful public engagement to ensure public acceptability of the proposed sampling, data collection and record linkage approaches, and will ensure the study serves the needs of the people it represents, by working closely with panels of families and children. In addition, the project team has carried out extensive consultation with policy and practitioner networks and with academic data users to determine evidence needs and scientific priorities for the feasibility study.

Key features of the study

Approach to sampling

Securing access to a high-quality sampling frame of babies born in all four UK countries is central to the feasibility study aims. We are currently working with agencies across the UK to develop applications to access centrally held records for this purpose, under appropriate governance mechanisms. Alongside this, we are developing a programme of public engagement work to ensure public acceptability of our plans for sampling.

Our preferred approach, currently under discussion with the relevant agencies, is to use birth registrations, linked to NHS maternity records.

Birth registrations provide universal coverage of the population of babies, contain key characteristics of the baby, mother and father, including where they live, and may allow fathers resident at a different address to the baby to be recruited in their own right.

NHS maternity records contain additional information which could be used for sampling, including the ethnic group of the baby, and facilitates timely access to updated addresses for any post-birth moves.

However, our approach will be flexible and pragmatic in each UK nation, taking into account public views, as well as local processes and systems, models of consent (whether opt-in or opt-out), and timeliness.

Public engagement

The study will be designed for the public benefit, and our core values include a commitment to trustworthiness and transparency in the use of personal data, and enabling  individuals’ voices to be heard and acted upon.

Together with our partners in the National Children’s Bureau, we will work with families with children to co-design the study in way that allows participant voices from a diverse set of backgrounds to be heard. The National Children’s Bureau and First 1001 Days Movement will support a policy and practictioner consultation. We will also consult widely with data users from the academic, policy and third sectors.

Biosamples and biomeasures

An important aim of the study is to assess the feasibility of biosamples and biomeasures collection from infants and parents.

We are currently consulting on which biosamples and biomeasures to include in order to enable researchers to understand the interplay between biology and social environment on the developing child, including testing hypotheses relating to biological embedding of social adversity, mechanisms underlying resilience, and gene-environment interactions. The opportunity to fully genotype the cohort and natural parents before subsequent attrition takes place also brings strong methodological benefits.

When implementing the feasibility study, we will randomise the biosamples and biomeasures protocol to a stratified sub-sample in order to test whether this significantly impacts on successful recruitment into the study. Further, we will test levels and patterns of consent to provide biosamples and biomeasures among those who do take part, to identify whether there are differing cultural perceptions of the specific biosamples proposed. The feasibility study will also test logistical factors in undertaking these collections at scale, and will also allow us to test sample storage and analysis options for the main study.

Novel forms of data collection

We will test the feasibility of a number of novel approaches to data collection in the core domains of cognition, emotion, language, social development and the home and wider environment.

This includes capture of neuro-cognitive function using direct assessment of habituation/learning, gaze following, turn-taking and imitation, which can also be supplemented with techniques such as eye-tracking and psycho-physiological measurement. We will also assess the quality of parent-child interactions using video-recording, administered by interviewers within the home and/or via smartphone capture.

Smartphone-based data capture offers the possibility of measuring developmental trajectories and family processes at much higher temporal resolution than previously possible. We will utilise an innovative smartphone app ‘BabySteps’, designed by the University of Iowa for studying early child development. The platform allows for the regular remote collection of video recordings of child behaviour, parent-child interaction, audio recording of linguistic interaction, and parental logging of key developmental milestones and EMA-based assessment of parental mood states.

We will also explore the potential for using wearable and other devices to allow the passive collection of real-time behaviour through direct measurement, including of the child’s linguistic environment (LENA system) and sleep and activity level using wearable actimetry sensors.

Record linkage

Administrative and geo-environmental linkages will be embedded in the feasibility study from the outset. Going back in time, these will cover histories of the parents from before the pregnancy, plus pregnancy and birth records, while going forwards, records will be linked from a constellation of agencies encountered by the baby and family, as the baby progresses through infancy and childhood.

We will develop models of consent and initiate applications to link to centrally held birth registration and NHS health records (for baby and mother), which would include maternal health records, primary care, inpatient admissions, outpatient appointments, A&E attendances, critical care; child records (neonatal records, newborn screening, child measurement, health and development data, congenital anomaly and rare diseases); vital events records including deaths; and prescribing and vaccination data. We will also include consent for linkage to parental education, DWP, and HMRC records.

In the future, linkage to child and sibling education records will become an important feature of the study.

Directors

Alissa Goodman Professor of Economics, Director of CLS and Co-Director of the Early Life Cohort Feasibility Study

Phone: 020 7612 6231
Email: alissa.goodman@ucl.ac.uk

Alissa Goodman is Professor of Economics, Director of the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, and Co-Director of the Early Life Cohort Feasibility Study, a project funded by ESRC to test the feasibility of a new birth cohort for the UK. She is a Co-Investigator on two further new national cohort projects, Children of the 2020s and the COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities Study. Alissa joined CLS in 2013 as PI of the 1958 National Child Development Study, having previously worked at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, where she served as its Deputy Director (2006-2012), and Director of its Education and Skills research sector.

Alissa’s main research interests relate to inequality, poverty, education policy, and the intergenerational transmission of health and wellbeing. Alissa was awarded a CBE for services to social science in 2021.

Lisa Calderwood Managing Director of CLS and Co-Director of the Early Life Cohort Feasibility Study

Phone: 020 7911 5510
Email: l.calderwood@ucl.ac.uk

Lisa is a Professor of Survey Research. She has over 20 years’ experience of the design and implementation of complex, large scale longitudinal surveys.

Her research areas include non-response, innovations in participant engagement, new technologies and mixed-modes of data collection, administrative data linkage and integrating bio-measures in social surveys. Lisa has strong national and international networks within the cohort studies community, is a member of the CLOSER Leadership Team, co-ordinator for the cohort network of Society of Lifecourse and Longitudinal Studies and is involved in the European-wide COORDINATE and GUIDE initiatives.

Pasco Fearon UCL Chair in Developmental Psychopathology and Co-Director of the Early Life Cohort Feasibility Study

Phone: +44 (0) 20 7679 1244
Email: p.fearon@ucl.ac.uk

Professor Pasco Fearon is a leading expert in early child development, specialising in early parenting, attachment, parental mental health and the development of children’s emotional and behavioural problems.

Pasco is a Clinical Psychologist and Professor at the University of Cambridge and UCL. He is Director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge and the Developmental Neuroscience Unit at the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families (AFNCCF). He has extensive expertise in longitudinal research in the infancy and early childhood period, and in the measurement of the home environment and children’s cognitive and emotional development.

Project team

Scientific Leadership and Delivery Team

Karen Dennison (UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies)

Dr Pia Hardelid (UCL)

Dr Lucy Griffiths (University of Swansea)

Professor Rebecca Reynolds (University of Edinburgh)

Dr Orla McBride (Ulster University)

Professor Kerina Jones (University of Swansea)

Rebecca Goldman (Fatherhood Institute)

Adrienne Burgess (Fatherhood Institute)

Professor George Ploubidis (UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies)

Study team

Dr Susan Purdon (Bryson Purdon Social Research)

Dr Rachael Wood (Public Health Scotland and University of Edinburgh)

Professor Chris Dibben (University of Edinburgh)

Professor Dermot O’Reilly (Queen’s University Belfast)

Professor Gary Pollock (Manchester Metropolitan University)

Paul Bradshaw (ScotCen)

Professor Heather Joshi (UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies)

Dr Erica Wong (UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies)

Dr Alyce Raybould (UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies)

Project partners

Nuffield Family Justice Observatory

The Nuffield Family Justice Observatory supports better outcomes for children by improving the use of data and research evidence in the family justice system in England and Wales. They will host a workshop of academics and practitioners to explore what it would take to establish a national longitudinal birth cohort study of children in need.

First 1001 Days Movement

The First 1001 Days Movement is an alliance of charities, parliamentarians, academics, and practitioners with an interest in babies’ emotional wellbeing, coordinated by the Parent-Infant Foundation. They will support our consultation with the policy and practice community.

National Children's Bureau

The National Children’s Bureau (NCB) has worked for the last 50 years to address inequalities which prevent children and young people from achieving their full potential. NCB will coordinate engagement with parent and young person advisory groups and the policy and practice community, and will promote early findings.

Contact us

Centre for Longitudinal Studies
UCL Social Research Institute

20 Bedford Way
London WC1H 0AL

Email: clsfeedback@ucl.ac.uk