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Youngest and oldest mothers’ babies have highest risk of problems

As socioeconomic factors explain half the extra risk, population-level programmes should support the disadvantaged

Louise Prime

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

The risk of developmental problems at the age of five years is highest among children born to the youngest mothers’ babies, and this is largely explained by socioeconomic factors, according to research from Australia. The study*, published today in PLOS Medicine, found that this risk declines with each added year of mothers’ age, but then starts to rise again slightly for babies born to women of 35 years and older.

The research team, led from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, commented that women in high-income countries are tending to have their children later in life, and they wanted to see whether or not this would affect child outcomes beyond the perinatal period. They designed a study to quantify the relationship between a child’s risk of developmental vulnerability at the age of five years, and their mother’s age at childbirth.

They analysed data from perinatal, hospital and birth registration records, the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) and school enrolments, for a cohort of 99,530 children; and followed them from birth until their first year of school in 2009 or 2012. The main outcome was teacher-reported child development on five domains including physical health and well-being; emotional maturity; social competence; language and cognitive skills; and communication skills and general knowledge.

In this study, 4.4% of children were born to mothers aged less than 20 years, and 20.1% to mothers aged at least 35 years.

Overall, 21% of the children were assessed as being developmentally vulnerable in at least one domain at the age of five. The rate was highest, at 40%, for children born to mothers aged 15 or younger, and then declined steadily until reaching a nadir of 17% in children born to mothers aged 30-35 years. The rate then rose again, and was 24% in children born to mothers aged 35-45 years.

The study authors noted that socioeconomic factors explained about half of the increased risk of developmental vulnerability in children born when their mothers were young, which they said “suggests that there may be scope to improve population-level child development through policies and programmes that support disadvantaged mothers and children."

They added: “Further research to better understand the mechanisms that underlie the elevated risk of developmental vulnerability... may inform policies and interventions to promote positive child development across the population.”


*Falster K, Hanly M, Banks E, et al. Maternal age and offspring developmental vulnerability at age five: A population-based cohort study of Australian children. PLoS Med 2018; 15(4): e1002558.

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