Skip to main content

Birth Weight and Early Cognitive Skills: Can Parenting Offset the Link?

Abstract

Objectives There is an enduring negative association between low birth weight (<2500 g) and early childhood cognitive skills. This study examines if parenting practices meaningfully contribute to or offset birth weight disparities in cognitive development prior to formal schooling. Methods This study uses the ECLS-B, a nationally representative sample of live births in the United States in 2001. Unlike studies focused on one or two measures of parenting and investment, this study considers a wide array parenting measures collected at multiple time points, tracked from before birth across 5 years of development. Results Regression results show that nearly 50 % of the low-birth-weight gap in early math and reading ability is associated with family socioeconomic status. Between-family OLS regressions show that parenting practices, including “parental interaction,” “cognitive stimulation,” and “parent quality”, are negatively associated with low birth weight and positively associated with improved cognitive skill among all children. After adjustment for family socioeconomic status, parenting practices did little to offset (by mediation or moderation) remaining birth weight disparities in early cognitive development. Conclusions Effective parenting is positively associated with cognitive development, but parenting is not a panacea—the developmental disadvantages associated with poor child health are not linked to parenting practices. We argue that birth weight disparities are rooted in biology and cannot easily be offset by parenting practices.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Abbreviations

NBW:

Normal birth weight

LBW:

Low birth weight

VLBW:

Very low birth weight

ECLS-B:

Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (9 months to kindergarten)

NCES:

National Center for Education Statistics

OLS:

Ordinary least squares

NCATS:

Nursing Child Assessment Teaching Scale

CES-D:

Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale

References

  • Almond, D., & Currie, J. (2011). Killing me softly: The fetal origins hypothesis. The Journal of Economic Perspectives: A Journal of the American Economic Association, 25(3), 153.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Blau, P. M., & Duncan, O. D. (1967). The occupational structure. New York, NY: Wiley.

    Google Scholar 

  • Boardman, J. D., Powers, D. A., Padilla, Y. C., & Hummer, R. A. (2002). Low birth weight, social factors, and developmental outcomes among children in the United States. Demography, 39(2), 353–368.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Case, A., Fertig, A., & Paxson, C. (2005). The lasting impact of childhood health and circumstance. Journal of Health Economics, 24(2), 365–389. doi:10.1016/j.jhealeco.2004.09.008.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Child Trends Databank. (2015). Low and very low birthweight infants. Retrieved from http://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=low-and-very-low-birthweight-infants.

  • Conley, D., Strully, K., & Bennett, N. G. (2003). The starting gate: Birth weight and life chances. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Currie, J. (2011). Inequality at birth: Some causes and consequences. National Bureau of Economic Research, 101(3), 1–22. doi:10.3386/w16798.

    Google Scholar 

  • Currie, J., & Hyson, R. (1999). Is the impact of health shocks cushioned by socioeconomic status? The case of low birthweight. National Bureau of Economic Research, 89(2), 245–250. doi:10.3386/w6999.

    Google Scholar 

  • Datar, A., Kilburn, M. R., & Loughran, D. S. (2010). Endowments and parental investments in infancy and early childhood. Demography, 47(1), 145–162.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • de Bernabé, J. V., Soriano, T., Albaladejo, R., Juarranz, M., Calle, M. E., Martínez, D., et al. (2004). Risk factors for low birth weight: A review. European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology, 116(1), 3–15.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Duncan, G. J., Dowsett, C. J., Claessens, A., Magnuson, K., Huston, A. C., Klebanov, P., et al. (2007). School readiness and later achievement. Developmental Psychology, 43(6), 1428–1446.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Duncan, G. J., & Magnuson, K. (2011). The nature and impact of early achievement skills, attention skills, and behavior problems. In G. J. Duncan, & R. J. Murnane (Eds.), Whither opportunity? Rising inequality, schools, and children’s life chances (pp. 47–69). New York City: Russell Sage Foundation.

    Google Scholar 

  • Elman, C., Wray, L. A., & Xi, J. (2014). Fundamental resource dis/advantages, youth health and adult educational outcomes. Social Science Research, 43, 108–126.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Geronimus, A. T. (1996). Black/white differences in the relationship of maternal age to birthweight: A population-based test of the weathering hypothesis. Social Science & Medicine, 42(4), 589–597. doi:10.1016/0277-9536(95)00159-X.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Goosby, B. J., & Cheadle, J. E. (2009). Birth weight, math and reading achievement growth: A multilevel between-sibling, between-families approach. Social Forces, 87(3), 1291–1320.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gorman, B. K. (1999). Racial and ethnic variation in low birthweight in the United States: individual and contextual determinants. Health & Place, 5(3), 195–207.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gorman, B. K. (2002). Birth weight and cognitive development in adolescence: Causal relationship or social selection? Biodemography and Social Biology, 49(1), 13–34.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hack, M., Klein, N. K., & Taylor, H. G. (1995). Long-term developmental outcomes of low birth weight infants. The Future of Children, 5(1), 176–196.

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Hamilton, B., Martin, J., Osterman, M., Curtin, S., & Mathews, M. S. (2015). Births: Final data for 2014. National Vital Statistics Reports, 64(12), 1–64.

    Google Scholar 

  • Heckman, J. J. (2008). Schools, skills, and synapses. Economic Inquiry, 46(3), 289–324.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • Kline, R. B. (2015). Principles and practice of structural equation modeling. New York: Guilford Publications.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lynch, J. L., & Brooks, R. (2013). Low birth weight and parental investment: Do parents favor the fittest child? Journal of Marriage and Family, 75(3), 533–543. doi:10.1111/jomf.12028.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • McGovern, M. E. (2013). Still unequal at birth: Birth weight, socio-economic status and outcomes at age 9. The Economic and Social Review, 44(1, Spring), 53–84.

    Google Scholar 

  • Merry, J. J. (2013). Tracing the US deficit in PISA reading skills to early childhood evidence from the United States and Canada. Sociology of Education, 86(3), 234–252.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Morenoff, J. D. (2003). Neighborhood mechanisms and the spatial dynamics of birth weight. American Journal of Sociology, 108(5), 976–1017.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Najarian, M., Snow, K., Lennon, J., Kinsey, S., & Mulligan, G. (2010). Early childhood longitudinal study, birth cohort (ECLS-B). Preschool-Kindergarten 2007 Psychometric Report, 2010–009.

  • Nord, C., Edwards, B., Hilpert, R., Branden, L., Andreassen, C., Elmore, A., et al. (2005). User’s manual for ECLS-B nine-month public-use data file and electronic code book. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 13.

  • Palloni, A. (2006). Reproducing inequalities: Luck, wallets, and the enduring effects of childhood health. Demography, 43(4), 587–615.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Royer, H. (2009). Separated at girth: US twin estimates of the effects of birth weight. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 1(1), 49–85.

    Google Scholar 

  • Shenkin, S. D., Starr, J. M., & Deary, I. J. (2004). Birth weight and cognitive ability in childhood: A systematic review. Psychological Bulletin, 130(6), 989.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Sparks, P. J. (2009). Do biological, sociodemographic, and behavioral characteristics explain racial/ethnic disparities in preterm births? Social Science and Medicine, 68(9), 1667–1675.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • StataCorp, L. (2013). Stata Statistical Software: Release 13. College Station, TX: Stata-Corp LP.

    Google Scholar 

  • Summer, G., & Spietz, A. (1994). Caregiver/parent–child interaction teaching manual. Seattle, WA: NCAST Publications.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tully, L. A., Arseneault, L., Caspi, A., Moffitt, T. E., & Morgan, J. (2004). Does maternal warmth moderate the effects of birth weight on twins’ attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms and low IQ? Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72(2), 218.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Ventura, S. J., Hamilton, B. E., Mathews, T., & Chandra, A. (2003). Trends and variations in smoking during pregnancy and low birth weight: evidence from the birth certificate, 1990–2000. Pediatrics, 111(Supplement 1), 1176–1180.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author’s Contribution

Dr. Lynch initiated the study, developed the first draft of the paper, revised drafts and approved the final manuscript as submitted. Dr. Gibbs developed the literature, added subsequent variables and analyses using statistical techniques, drafted the final manuscript version and approved the final manuscript as submitted.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jamie L. Lynch.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

None.

Appendix

Appendix

See Tables 5 and 6.

Table 5 OLS modeling the association between birth weight status and kindergarten entry reading scores with mediating factors (N = 6100), ECLS-B, 2001
Table 6 OLS modeling the association between birth weight status and kindergarten entry reading scores with mediating factors and interactions (N = 6100), ECLS-B, 2001

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Lynch, J.L., Gibbs, B.G. Birth Weight and Early Cognitive Skills: Can Parenting Offset the Link?. Matern Child Health J 21, 156–167 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10995-016-2104-z

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10995-016-2104-z

Keywords

  • Cognitive development
  • Birth weight
  • Early childhood
  • Parenting