Trajectories of socioeconomic inequality in early child development: a cohort analysis

Tanja A.J. Houweling*, Joost Oude Groeniger, Pauline W. Jansen, Pol van Lier, Nil Horoz, Marieke Buil, Frank J. van Lenthe

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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Background: Addressing socioeconomic inequalities in early child development (ECD) is key to reducing the intergenerational transmission of health inequalities. Yet, little is known about how socioeconomic inequalities in ECD develop over the course of childhood. Our study aimed to describe how inequalities in ECD by maternal education develop from infancy to middle childhood. Methods: We used data from Generation R, a prospective population-based cohort study in The Netherlands. Language skills were measured at ages 1, 1.5, 2, 3, and 4 years, using the Minnesota Child Development Inventory. Socioemotional (i.e. internalizing and externalizing) problems were measured at ages 1.5, 3, 5 and 9 years using the Child Behavior Checklist. We estimated inequalities in language skills and socioemotional problems across the above-mentioned ages, using linear mixed models with standardized scores at each wave. We used maternal education as indicator of socioeconomic position. Results: Children of less educated mothers had more reported internalizing (B = 0.72, 95%CI = 0.51;0.95) and externalizing (B = 0.25, 95%CI = 0.10;0.40) problems at age 1.5 years, but better (caregiver reported) language skills at 1 year (B = 0.50, 95%CI = 0.36;0.64) than children of high educated mothers. Inequalities in internalizing and externalizing problems decreased over time. Inequalities in language scores reversed at age 2, and by the time children were 4 years old, children of less educated mothers had substantially lower language skills than children of high educated mothers (B = -0.38, 95%CI = -0.61;-0.15). Conclusions: Trajectories of socioeconomic inequality in ECD differ by developmental domain: whereas inequalities in socioemotional development decreased over time, inequalities increased for language development. Children of less educated mothers are at a language disadvantage even before entering primary education, providing further evidence that early interventions are needed.

Original languageEnglish
Article number79
JournalInternational Journal for Equity in Health
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 7 Jun 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by a grant from the Netherlands Organization for Health Research and Development (ZonMw) (project No. 531003013). T.A.J. Houweling is financially supported by an NWO grant (grant number NWA.1238.18.001), and though a grant awarded by the Norwegian Research Council (project number 288638) to the Centre for Global Health Inequalities Research (CHAIN) at the Norwegian University for Science and Technology (NTNU). P.W. Jansen is member of the SEED Consortium. SEED stands for Social InEquality and its Effects on child Development: A study of birth cohorts in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands (Grant # 462-16-030) and is part of the Dynamics of inequality across the Lifecourse (DIAL) Programme of the EU’s New Opportunities for Research Funding Agency Co-operation in Europe (NORFACE) initiative.

Funding Information:
We gratefully acknowledge the work that Mara Verheijen has done for this manuscript. The Generation R Study is conducted by the Erasmus Medical Center in close collaboration with the Erasmus University Rotterdam, School of Law and Faculty of Social Sciences, the Municipal Health Service Rotterdam area, Rotterdam, the Rotterdam Homecare Foundation, Rotterdam, and the Stichting Trombosedienst & Artsenlaboratorium Rijnmond (STAR), Rotterdam. We gratefully acknowledge the contribution of general practitioners, hospitals, midwives and pharmacies in Rotterdam. We thank two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022, The Author(s).


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