Early Life Cohort Feasibility Study

The Early Life Cohort Feasibility Study (ELC-FS) is a two-year project starting in April 2021, that will test the feasibility of a new UK-wide birth cohort study. The study will recruit several thousand new babies, collecting information about their families and their development. The feasibility study will be evaluated in early 2023, and if judged to be successful, commissioning of a new, larger main study is anticipated in 2023.

Study aims

The Early Life Cohort Feasibility Study will collect rich data on a new generation of babies born across the UK between August-October 2021, capturing information about their economic and social environments, and their health, wellbeing and development during their first year of life.

The main aim of the project is to test the feasibility of successful recruitment into an innovative new UK-wide study of babies. However, the data from the feasibility study itself will also be of value to the research and policy community.

The study 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 will include:

  • Inequality, disadvantage, and diversity;
  • 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;
  • Genomics, early adversity and biological embedding of stress.

What will be in the study?

To ensure the project delivers on its key scientific themes, we will run a consultation in May and June 2021 on the content and design of the study. Some key features of the design are set out below.

The ELC-FS will draw a nationally representative sample of babies born from all four UK nations, and use a range of data collection modes and methods.

The sample design will focus 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 engage fathers into the study, including those living in their own households, and will consult widely on engagement of other potentially 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 will work together with experts to understand how best to engage babies who are extremely vulnerable in the study, including children born into care.

The exact age at which data collection is set to take place depends upon the sampling frame, and is subject to consultation, but is likely to be when babies are aged nine months. Data collection will involve face-to-face interviews with both mothers and fathers, combined with innovative measures to capture babies’ development and interactions with parents. These may include direct observations and recordings by trained fieldworkers in the home, data collection via a smartphone app and wearable sleep and activity devices.

Bio-samples – such as cheek swabs and hair – will be issued to an experimental subgroup of 1,000 babies, to test the impact on participation for the main study. We will also use experiments to test other features of the study design, including the effectiveness of different levels of incentives for taking part.

The study design will enable linkages to electronic health and other administrative records of babies, parents, and siblings, 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.

The project team will undertake 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 will engage closely with policy and practitioner networks and will consult with academic data users to determine evidence needs and scientific priorities for the feasibility study.

Who funds the study?

The Early Life Cohort Feasibility Study receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council

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Latest from ELC-FS

10 Jun 2021
Event

Consultation on the content and design of an Early Life Cohort Feasibility study for the UK

6 May 2021

This is a consultation organised by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies…

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. Information on upcoming engagement and consultation events can be found on our news page

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 is Director of the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, leading the work of the Centre, with a particular focus on its scientific direction and external engagement. Alissa is also Co-Director of the new Early Life Cohort Feasibility Study, with overall responsibility for its scientific design and delivery, and is on the leadership team of the new Children of the 2020s Study.

Alissa is an economist whose main research interests relate to inequality, poverty, education policy, and the intergenerational transmission of income and well-being. In her previous employment, she served as deputy director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

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. As PI of Next Steps (2013-2021), she secured funding from the Economic and Social Research Council and led its successful re-start, including major survey sweeps at Age 25 in 2016 and upcoming Age 32 in 2022. As Senior Survey Manager (2007-2021), she has made a major contribution to the scientific content of the CLS studies and overseen all aspects of survey design and implementation on around 14 major data collection sweeps. 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

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

Professor Fearon is a developmental and clinical psychologist, and an internationally-recognised expert on early child development. He is Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at University College London, member of the Senior Leadership Team for Early Years at the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, and visiting Professor at the Yale Child Study Center.  His research focuses on environmental mechanisms influencing early child development and risk for social and emotional maladjustment in children. Factors of particular focus include the impact of poverty, postnatal depression, caregiving and insecurity of parent-child attachment. Fearon has led numerous observational and psychosocial intervention studies with families and young children in the UK and in LMICs, including interventions for multiply deprived families and children in care. He also specialises in the study of the interactions between social and biological processes in children’s social and emotional development, including the analysis of biological markers of stress in children and parents, and of genetics contributions to child development and mental health. Fearon is Deputy Editor in Chief of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, President of the Society for Emotion and Attachment Studies, and an expert advisor for the Parent-Infant Foundation, Foundation Years Information Research and Big Lottery’s Better Start Blackpool programme. He is the research director of the new DfE-commissioned Children of the 2020’s Birth Cohort Study.

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 Emily Gilbert (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