In a small sample group of 52 families from Philadelphia, made up of African-American mothers and female babies, researchers found that by age 1, infants in poor families have already been exposed to greater disadvantages that contribute to poorer cognitive and language development skills.
PolicyLab and the Division of Neonatology at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) released the study last month as part of a larger assessment to determine how poverty influences brain development.
“The effects of poverty on older children have been well-documented by researchers over the past few decades, but this is the first study to illustrate the multiple disadvantages infants face before they turn 1-year-old,” said Hallam Hurt, a neonatologist and professor of pediatrics at CHOP and lead author of the study.
Researchers assessed children at age 1 using validated developmental assessments that measure infant cognitive and language functions. They found that infants in low-income families, defined as a family of four with an annual income of $23,500 or less, had significantly poorer cognitive and language performance than infants in higher-income families.
“For example, infants in low-income families demonstrated lower levels of problem-solving behaviors and understanding of caregiver communication than higher-income participants at age 12 months,” the report stated.
Researchers said the study is the first to evaluates multiple aspects of the maternal, home and neighborhood environments of infants growing up poor.
The results demonstrate a portrait of disadvantage that doesn’t come as a surprise to experts. Low-income families are more likely to experience higher levels of stress and food insecurity, have fewer age-appropriate toys and books for their children, and provide less child-centered households.
Even for low-income mothers, they scored lower on measures of verbal and visual spatial skills and are more likely to experience concentrated neighborhood disadvantage, the study found.
“Early divergence of cognitive and language performance between low and higher-income children increases over time,” Laura Betancourt, PhD, Division of Neonatology at CHOP, conducted the developmental assessments and one of the authors on the study said.
The doctors said they used a group of black mothers and their female babies to have a greater ability to isolate the effects of poverty. They conceded that future research must be done to replicate this study in larger, more diverse group of races in different cities and states.
“Today, many vulnerable children don’t receive the support of programs like Head Start until age 3,” Hurt said. “Our research suggests a window of opportunity for initiation of interventions at much earlier ages for both infants and their families.”