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


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.

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Normal birth weight


Low birth weight


Very low birth weight


Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (9 months to kindergarten)


National Center for Education Statistics


Ordinary least squares


Nursing Child Assessment Teaching Scale


Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale


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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.

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Correspondence to Jamie L. Lynch.

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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

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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).

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  • Cognitive development
  • Birth weight
  • Early childhood
  • Parenting