Developmental delays in children of teen moms explored in Toronto study

Posted on October 17, 2013 in Child & Family Debates – Life/Health & Wellness – Children of teen moms more apt to have developmental delays due to socio-demographic circumstances, study says.
Oct 16 2013.   By: , Health

When Dr. Julia Morinis sees young patients who are developmentally delayed, she is not so quick to reach for her prescription pad or order diagnostic tests.

If the children are the offspring of teen mothers, the inner-city Toronto pediatrician’s first course of action might be to suggest going to the library to read books together.

That’s because children living in poverty, especially those of teenage mothers, are less likely to be exposed to the kind of stimuli that enhance verbal, non-verbal and spatial abilities, a phenomenon Morinis has studied in research published Wednesday in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood.

While it has been well-documented in earlier studies that children of teen mothers are more likely to be developmentally delayed, Morinis — who is also a researcher at the Centre for Research on Inner City Health at St. Michael’s Hospital — wanted to drill down and explore why.

“The question we wanted to address is whether there is something innate about being a teenage mother that predisposes children to be at risk for having delayed development, or if there is something else going on that all teen moms have in common, such as struggling to finish school or find well-paid work,” Morinis said.

Looking at 5-year-old children, her study found that those born to mothers ages 18 and younger have lower verbal, non-verbal and spatial skills than those whose mothers are ages 25 to 34. Non-verbal skills include waving, pointing and understanding such gestures. Spatial skills involve recognizing patterns and shapes.

For non-verbal and spatial abilities, the study found that differences between these two groups of children can be largely attributed to significant inequalities in socio-demographic circumstances.

For example, younger mothers are more likely to be poor and unemployed, have less education, fewer social supports and be single parents. They are more likely to drink alcohol and smoke, less likely to breastfeed and tend to have fewer appointments with health-care professionals when pregnant.

When it comes to differences in verbal skills, there is more going on, Morinis explained.

“We think that it is caused by the interactions a child has with a mother. But because we weren’t able to measure interaction — how a parent plays or talks or sings with a child — we can’t say,” Morinis said.

“But, likely, we know that teen moms are more at risk for being depressed, having postpartum depression and having many stressors in their lives that likely do affect how they interact with their children,” she added.

The study was based on data from the Millennium Cohort Study, which looks at the development of almost 19,000 children born between 2000 and 2001 across Britain.

The Morinis study comes on the heels of a separate Canadian study that shows the academic benefits of full-day kindergarten are short-lived and by high school there is no difference between a child who attended the all-day program or only went for half.

Researchers from the University of Manitoba found full-day kindergarten does not “shrink the gap” in achievement between students from families with low socioeconomic status and those from more affluent homes, a reason often cited for the program.

Senior researcher Marni Brownell said it may be for a number of reasons, including that what is taught at school in later years isn’t being reinforced at home for kids living in low-income homes.

“We’re not trying to say full-day kindergarten is not a good program — what we are saying is if you are implementing full-day kindergarten to get these long-term academic outcomes, maybe this isn’t the best way to do it,” said Marni Brownell, a senior research scientist and professor with the University of Manitoba.


With files from Joel Eastwood and Kristin Rushowy

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