New Report on Health and Wellbeing of Three-Year-Old Children Launched

Growing Up in Ireland Development: From Birth to Three Years investigates how three-year-old children in Ireland are doing in terms of their physical health and development; their socio-emotional/behavioural well-being and their cognitive development. Dr Cathal McCrory, Research Fellow in Medical Gerontology at Trinity College Dublin, and Dr Sinéad McNally, Visiting Research Fellow in Psychology at Trinity, were among the report’s authors.

The report also examines how outcomes are affected by the home environment of the children, by their childcare arrangements and by their family’s economic and financial situation. (A full download of the report and the executive summary is available here.)

Pictured at the launch of the Growing Up in Ireland: Development From Birth to Three Years report were Dr Sinéad McNally, Visiting Research Fellow in Psychology at Trinity College Dublin, Dr Aisling Murray (ESRI), Frances Fitzgerald, TD, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Professor James Williams (ESRI), Professor Hannah McGee (RCSI) and Dr Cathal McCrory Research Fellow in Medical Gerontology at Trinity.

Speaking at the launch, Ms Frances Fitzgerald TD, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs said: “The importance of the first three years of life and the impact it can have on a range of life outcomes is well documented. This valuable contribution, charting a range of developmental milestones and documenting the lives of Irish children from birth to three years, using the Growing Up in Ireland data, provides a rich description of the family, childcare and financial circumstances in which the youngest members of our society live. What this report also highlights is that even by 3 years, there is evidence of an emerging gap in child outcomes relating to levels of social advantage”.

The Growing Up in Ireland study is a Government funded study following the progress of almost 20,000 children and their families – an infant cohort of 11,000 children recruited into the study at nine months of age, and a child cohort of 8,500 children recruited at nine 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. Those wishing to find out more about the study or today’s event can visit the study’s website

In July this year the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs announced that the Study would be extended for a further 5 years from 2015-2019.  The analyses from these additional surveys will feed into evidence-informed policy development and will position Ireland at the international forefront of child cohort studies throughout the world.


Key Findings:

 Child health status, physical development and growth

  • The vast majority of 3-year-old children in Ireland are reported to be in good health – almost 98 per cent were described as being very healthy or healthy, with a few minor problems by their parents.  Girls were rated as being in marginally better health than boys.
  • Almost 16 per cent of 3-year-olds were reported as having a long standing illness, disability or other health condition, with a higher rate for boys (18 per cent) than for girls (13 per cent).  Asthma was the most commonly reported on-going illness (6 per cent of three-year-olds).
  • On average, 3-year-olds had 2.6 consultations with their GP in the previous year.  Children who were covered by a full medical card tended to have had more consultations with the GP, even when accounting for their health status.
  • The typical 3-year-old was 96.2 cms tall and weighed 15.6 kgms.  On average, boys were taller and heavier than girls.  The report indicates that 76 per cent of 3-year-olds were not overweight, 19 per cent were overweight and 6 per cent were obese.  There was little difference in prevalence of overweight and obesity between boys and girls but there were quite strong differences in obesity levels according to the family’s social class – from 5 per cent among children from the most socially advantaged group to 9 per cent among those who were most disadvantaged.

Socio-emotional development

  • 3-year-old children in Ireland tend to display slightly lower levels of socio-emotional or behavioural difficulties than their counterparts in Britain, who participated in a study very similar to Growing Up in Ireland.  
  • Boys were more likely to be in the problematic range of socio-emotional behaviour, as were children from more socially disadvantaged groups – the latter measured in terms of social class or mother’s educational attainment.  Although these class gradients are in line with international trends they are, nonetheless, a cause of concern.
  • Parenting styles which were low in warmth and consistency or high in hostility were related to more behavioural difficulties among children.
  • Children who were being brought up in families in which the parents were in some form of stress were more likely to display behavioural difficulties. The study found that behavioural difficulties displayed by children at 3 years were related to changes in the stress levels of their parents since 9 months. 

Cognitive and language development

  • Girls performed measurably better on tests of cognitive ability than boys at 3 years of age.  Social gradients (especially in relation to the educational attainment of the child’s mother) were clear by the time the child was 3 years old.
  • Cognitive ability was also strongly associated with activities such as frequency of reading to the child in the home.
  • The study shows that children who lagged behind developmentally in areas such as communications and problem-solving at 9 months of age continued to lag behind cognitively at 3 years. 

Childcare arrangements

  • Half of 3-year-olds were in some form of non-parental childcare.  Over a quarter were cared for in a crèche, Montessori, pre-school or naoinra; 11 per cent by a relative in a home-based setting (either the child’s or the relative’s) and the remaining 12 per cent in a home-based setting by a non-relative.
  • When their child was 3 years of age almost all parents planned to avail of the new free pre-school year.  Only 3 per cent said they would not be availing of it.

The economic and financial circumstances of 3-year-old’s families

  • Just over half (54 per cent) of the mothers of 3-year-olds worked outside the home, with a further 37 per cent being engaged in home duties / looking after the family.
  • Mothers who worked outside the home did so, on average, for 30 hours per week.
  • Substantial minorities of parents who worked outside the home were experiencing work-life imbalances. Unsurprisingly, the extent of these pressures was related to the number of hours worked.
  • The percentage of families who were experiencing difficulties in making ends meet increased substantially between the interviews at 9 months and those at 3 years, reflecting the recession since 2008 – 44 per cent and 61 per cent respectively.
  • Almost two-thirds of the families of 3-year-olds said that the recession had had a big effect on their lives since their interview when their child was 9 months of age.  Reduction in wages and cuts in working hours and Social Welfare have had a major effect.  The impact of these changes was reflected in their having to cut back on basics (mentioned by 32 per cent of families who were affected by the recession); being behind with utility bills (14 per cent) and being behind with the rent or mortgage (9 per cent).

Trinity College Dublin, College Green, Dublin 2.