New Findings from Growing Up in Ireland Study Examine Health, Family Life and Financial and Economic Circumstances of Three-Year-Olds

Posted on: 02 December 2011

The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald TD, recently launched the first findings from Growing Up in Ireland – The Infant Cohort at 3 Years involving 11,100 three-year-olds and their parents.

The latest results from the study paint a picture of how these families are faring across a range of areas in their lives including their health, family life and financial and economic circumstances. In general the findings show that three-year-olds in Ireland are in good health with a few notable public health and related issues (including overweight and obesity), there is overall stability in family structures over the short term and that the recession has had a substantial effect on families with young children over the last number of years.

These are the first longitudinal findings from the study. The first wave of fieldwork with the families of the Infant Cohort included approximately 11,100 nine-month-olds, their parents and carers. Interviews began in September 2008 and were completed in March 2009. Interviews for the second round of interviews with this cohort took place between January and August 2011. A total of 90% of the original sample of nine-month-olds were successfully re-interviewed. (A full download of the results released today, presented in three briefing documents can be found at

Minister Frances Fitzgerald at the launch event with Julia Sierocka, age 3, who took part in the study.

Key findings include:

– Most of the children were described as being in good health; 75% were rated as very healthy and a further 23% were rated as healthy, but a few minor problems. Girls were more likely to be reported as very healthy (78%) compared with boys (72%).
– One in four or almost one quarter of three-year-old children were overweight (19%) or obese (6%).
– Children’s weight was related to household social class. 5% of children in families in the professional/managerial group were classified as obese at three years of age compared with 9% of those in the most disadvantaged social class group. However, at least one-fifth of children in every social class were overweight.
– Childrens consumption of energy-dense foods such as crisps, sweets, chips, and non-diet fizzy drinks increased as parental education fell.  63% of children whose mother had a lower secondary education or less ate at least one portion of crisps compared with 36% of those from degree-level backgrounds, although consumption of biscuits/chocolates was over 70% for both groups of children.
– Two-thirds (66%) of three-year-olds had received at least one course of antibiotics in the 12 months preceding the interview. Children with a full medical card (35% of the sample) or a GP-only medical card (5% of the sample) were more likely to have received a course of antibiotics than those without a medical card.
– Children with a full medical card received a higher number of antibiotic courses on average (2.6) compared with those without a medical card (2.1).
– Just under 16% of three-year-old children were reported as having at least one longstanding illness, condition or disability. The most commonly reported illness types included Asthma (5.8%), Eczema/Skin allergies (3.9%) and Food/digestive allergies (1.2%)

Family Life and Childcare
– While the overall distribution of family structure was stable, there have been transitions from one-parent families to two-parent families and vice-versa over the 27 months between interview – approximately 2 to 3 percent in each direction.
– 50% of three year olds were in some form of non-parental childcare for eight or more hours a week. The most common form used was centre-based childcare which almost tripled between nine months and three years, from 11% to 30%.
– A similar percentage of grandparents were caring for children at both nine months and three years, 12% and 11% respectively. A total of 10% of three-year-olds were being minded by a childminder, an increase of 3 percentage points from when the children were nine months of age.
– Children who were in some form of non-parental childcare were spending an average of 23 hours a week in their main type of childcare.
– At time of interview the vast majority of mothers reported that they had regular contact with the Study Child’s grandparents (91%). In offering support to parents, grandparents were most likely to babysit (50%), and buy clothes (40%) at least on a monthly basis. One-parent families were more likely than two-parent families to receive financial support from grandparents with just under one-third (66%) of one-parent families receiving financial support from grandparents at least once every three months.
– The most frequently used discipline technique was ‘discussing or explaining why the behaviour was wrong’, with 63% of mothers saying they always did this.
– 12% of mothers said they used ‘smacking’ as a form of discipline now and again and less than 1% used ‘smacking’ as a form of discipline more frequently. Over half reported that they never smacked the Study Child.

Financial and Economic Circumstances
– Just over half (53%) of mothers of three-year-olds worked outside the home, 38% said they were on home duties and 6% said they were unemployed.
– The biggest change in terms of the work status of three-year-olds’ parents was an increase in the percentage of unemployed fathers – 6% when the child was nine months rising to almost 14% when s/he was three years of age.
–  61% of families of three-year-olds reported experiencing difficulties in making ‘ends meet’. This was a substantial increase from 44% in the first round of interviews when the children were nine-months-old.
– Almost two thirds (63%) of all families with three-year-olds reported that the recession had had a very significant or significant effect on them.
– The most frequently recorded effects were: a reduction in wages (63%); can’t afford luxuries (54%), social welfare reduction (53%) and can’t afford/cut back on basics (32%).

Growing Up in Ireland is a Government funded study tracking the development of two nationally representative cohorts of children: an Infant Cohort which was interviewed initially at nine months and subsequently at three years of age; and a Child Cohort which was interviewed initially at nine years and subsequently at 13 years of age. The study is being conducted by a consortium of researchers led by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) and Trinity College Dublin.

Speaking at the event, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald TD, said: “This research highlights the heavy economic strain being experienced by families today, which is deeply disturbing. The research shows what we already know on a personal basis, families are finding it very tough to make ends meet.”

Also speaking today, Professor James Williams, Research Professor, ESRI and Principal Investigator and Co-Director, Growing Up in Ireland, said: “The release of today’s findings is a significant milestone in the life of the study giving a first glimpse of the longitudinal trends in the situation of families with young children and a clearer picture of the different life experiences for children in Ireland. With each wave of data collected our knowledge and understanding of children’s development increases in breadth and scope. The strength of Growing Up in Ireland as a longitudinal study allows us to look at families over time and to provide information about change at an individual and family level and gain insights into the effects of early life experiences on outcomes later in life.”

The findings were launched as part of Growing Up in Ireland’s Annual Research Conference 2011, held in Dublin. During the one-day conference a total of 25 papers were presented by researchers from a wide range of third level and research institutions. These were based on data from Growing Up in Ireland’s Child and Infant Cohorts and focused on a range of topics including health, parenting, education and childcare. (See below for a full list of papers presented).

Those wishing to find out more about the study or today’s conference can visit the study’s website