Young children's understanding of language nearly back to pre-pandemic levels

Katy Morton
Friday, December 1, 2023

A new study suggests that young children’s understanding of language is nearly back to pre-pandemic norms, despite ‘added pressures on today’s families’.

The first report of the DfE commissioned Children of the 2020's study has been published PHOTO: Adobe Stock
The first report of the DfE commissioned Children of the 2020's study has been published PHOTO: Adobe Stock

The first report from the Children of the 2020s study, published by the DfE and led by UCL in partnership with Ipsos and the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, and Birkbeck, University of London, finds overall, nine-month-olds understood an average of 14 out of 51 common words. It says this is similar to pre-pandemic norms.

The study follows more than 8,500 families and their babies, born in England between September and November 2021. According to the DfE, it is the first long-term, nationally representative study of babies since the UK Millennium Cohort Study that was launched more than 20 years ago.

Children of the 2020s will follow families for at least the first five years of their children’s lives. The first survey took place between June and November 2022 when the babies were an average of nine and a half months old.

Key findings include:

  • Four in five primary caregivers reported cuddling, talking and playing with their babies several times a day.
  • More than half engaged in physical or turn-taking play, singing, pretend games and noisy play with their babies several times a day. Around three-quarters showed their babies picture books or took them outside at least once a day.
  • For just over one in 14 (7.4 per cent) of the babies in the study, most of the daily interactions will be with their father, who is their primary caregiver. This is in contrast to 20 years ago when one in 1,000 nine-month-olds were cared primarily by their dad at this age.

The findings also show that parents are navigating significant challenges in their babies’ first months, revealing, a quarter are facing at least some financial strain and around a fifth sought help from a doctor for feelings of depression following the birth of their child. 

On ‘childcare’, the report shows:

  • 43 per cent of families were using some form of regular childcare when their babies were nine months. Of these families, most were using informal childcare provided by relatives or friends. However, one in eight were using formal childcare such as day nurseries or childminders.
  • Parents on the highest incomes were almost six times as likely to use formal childcare (23 per cent vs 4 per cent) than those from the most disadvantaged homes.
  • They were also more likely to use informal childcare (40 per cent vs 31 per cent), mainly from grandparents and other relatives and friends.

Study director, Professor Pasco Fearon (UCL Psychology & Language Sciences and the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge), said, ‘These vital new insights reveal the dramatic shifts in our society over that time, with fathers taking a greater role in parenting and parents more likely to be balancing caring responsibilities with work and parental leave. 

‘As the first post-Covid study of families with babies, Children of the 2020s shows the many challenges parents are now facing as they deal with rising costs, health and mental health difficulties, and issues accessing public services. There are, however, very encouraging signs of resilience, with parents showing how engaged they are with fathers taking a greater role in parenting and parents more likely to be balancing caring responsibilities with work and parental leave.’

A Department for Education (DfE) spokesperson added, ‘The department commissioned this research to better understand early childhood development factors which will help shape policy decisions. We are encouraged by many parents engaging in activities like reading and play, recognising its importance in early development.’

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