Growing Up in Ireland: Maternal Health Behaviours and Child Growth in Infancy

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Minister Reilly Launches Growing up in Ireland Report on Maternal Health Behaviours And Child Growth in Infancy

Report shows that the prenatal and early life environment that a child experiences has a profound influence on their health in infancy and subsequent pattern of physical and mental development

Growing Up in Ireland: The National Longitudinal Study of Children has published a major new report on maternal health behaviours and child growth in infancy. The report was launched by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Dr. James Reilly TD, at an event in Pearse Street Library, Dublin.

The report draws on data from a cohort of over 11,000 infants and their families to investigate the extent and distribution of three specific health behaviours among mothers in the prenatal and antenatal period: cigarette smoking in pregnancy, alcohol consumption in pregnancy and breastfeeding. The report examines the impact of these health behaviours on the child’s birth weight and subsequent growth and development from birth to 9 months of age.

Key Findings include:

  • Comparisons of the child born in 1999 and 2007 show that the proportion of women smoking at all in pregnancy has fallen from 28% to 17%.
  • A total of 13% of mothers smoked all the way through their pregnancy.
  • Smoking was strongly related to the woman’s mental health: women experiencing ‘a great deal of stress’ were 37% more likely to smoke.
  • Being poor and having low levels of education contribute to the risk of smoking.
  • If the woman’s partner continues to smoke during the pregnancy, the mother is 70% less likely to quit.
  • Compared to women in the UK, women in Growing Up in Ireland were significantly less likely to report drinking during pregnancy, but if they did consume, they were likely to drink more heavily than their UK counterparts.
  • Women with higher levels of income and education were more likely to drink alcohol during pregnancy.
  • There is a steady relationship between number of cigarettes smoked in pregnancy and birth weight: smoking 11+ cigarettes daily decreases birth weight by a third of a kilo on average.
  • Almost half of children were weaned onto solid foods before the guideline age. Less breastfeeding and earlier weaning onto solid foods was associated with an unhealthy pattern of weight gain in infancy.
  • Women who give birth in a maternity hospital which is accredited under the ‘Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative’ (BFHI) are 10% more likely to initiate breastfeeding.

Policy Implications

  • Few women start smoking in pregnancy; smoking prevention among young women should be a priority.
  • Pregnant women are less likely to quit when their partner smoke. Smoking cessation efforts should be targeted at partners, as well as the woman herself.
  • Smoking cessation efforts should be coordinated across maternity hospitals.
  • The probability of smoking during pregnancy increased with the experience of stress, anxiety and depression. Assessment and intervention for these conditions at first booking appointment should be a priority.
  • The high consumption of alcohol in Irish society means that many children are exposed to high levels of alcohol until a woman’s pregnancy is confirmed. Reducing levels of consumption among younger women would be beneficial for both their own and their future children’s health.
  • All maternity hospitals should be BFHI accredited.
  • Resources for the promotion of breastfeeding and BFHI accreditation should be substantially increased.
  • The prevalence of early weaning in Ireland (before 6 months) suggests that parents in Ireland are not aware of the health consequences for their child. Health professionals need to communicate a clearer message on this issue to parents.

Speaking at today’s event the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Dr. James Reilly, T.D. said:

‘This report and its findings are a clear reminder that the prenatal period and the early years of a child’s life provide a unique window of opportunity to establish lifelong health and well-being patterns.

 We must do what we can to protect children from harmful exposure to smoking in the prenatal and early childhood period and re-establish breastfeeding as the cultural norm in Ireland, thereby making it the natural choice for parents’.

Professor Richard Layte (TCD), author of the report, commented that:

‘Poor child and maternal environment during pregnancy and infancy contributes to early ill health and may have life-long consequences. Research internationally shows that Investment in maternity services and community health services saves money both in the short and long run’.

Growing Up in Ireland (GUI) is a Government funded study following the progress of almost 20,000 children and their families – an infant cohort of 11,134 children participating at nine months, three years and five years of age and a child cohort of 8,568 children interviewed at nine years and 13 years of age. The Study is fully funded by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, in association with the Department of Social Protection and the Central Statistics Office. The Study is being carried out by a team of independent researchers led by the Economic and Social Research Institute and Trinity College. Those wishing to find out more about the study can visit the study’s website

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