Babies get brain boosts when their low income parents receive monthly cash support
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Babies get brain boosts when their low income parents receive monthly cash support

by Freya Lucas

February 11, 2022

A team of investigators from six American universities has found that an intervention designed to reduce poverty had a direct impact on children’s brain development. 


Initial findings show that after one year of monthly cash support for families living with low incomes, one-year-olds exhibited brain activity patterns associated with the development of thinking and learning. 


The study measured brain activity among a sample of 435 one-year-old children who were participating in a landmark randomized controlled trial known as “Baby’s First Years.” 


Baby’s First Years is a larger trial, the first direct poverty reduction evaluation in the United States to focus on early childhood, and recruited 1,000 mothers with low incomes from postpartum wards in a dozen hospitals in four U.S. metropolitan areas: New Orleans, New York City, Omaha, and Minneapolis/St. Paul. 


Shortly after they gave birth, participating mothers were randomised to receive either a large monthly cash gift of $333/month or a nominal monthly cash gift of $20/month. The gifts were disbursed on debit cards, and the mothers, most of whom were Black or Latina, were free to spend the cash gifts in whatever way they chose, with no strings attached. 


“We have known for many years that growing up in poverty puts children at risk for lower school achievement, reduced earnings, and poorer health,” senior author Professor Kimberly Noble said. 


While poverty has also been associated with differences in children’s brain development, Professor Noble notes that “until now, we haven’t been able to say whether poverty itself causes differences in child development, or whether growing up in poverty is simply associated with other factors that cause those differences.” 


Because of the randomized controlled trial design, the authors were able to distinguish correlation from causation, concluding that giving money directly to mothers living in poverty can translate to changes in their infants’ brain activity. 


Under the direction of lead author Sonya Troller-Renfree brain activity was measured using electroencephalography (EEG), a technique in which a cap is placed on an infant’s head and used to record the brain’s electrical activity (known colloquially as “brainwaves”). 


Past research has linked high-frequency – that is, fast – brain activity to the development of thinking and learning. The study reports that infants whose mothers received $333/month had more high-frequency brain activity compared with infants whose mothers received $20/month.


The differences, co-author Distinguished Professor Greg Duncan explained, “are similar in magnitude to those reported in large-scale education interventions,” such as reductions in class size. 


The new study reports the initial findings on infant brain activity after the first 12 months of the poverty reduction intervention. The mothers will continue to receive the cash gifts, funded by charitable foundations, until their children are four years and four months old.


Authors note that they do not yet know whether these differences will persist over time, or whether they will lead to differences in children’s cognitive or behavioral development, which will be measured in future waves of the study. Likewise, the authors do not yet know which particular experiences were involved in generating the impacts on brain development. Work is underway to examine potential mechanisms, including how mothers spent the money, and how having more money may have changed parenting behaviors, family relationships, and family stress. 


Collaborating institutions include: Teachers College, Columbia University; the University of Wisconsin, Madison; the University of California, Irvine; Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy; New York University; and the University of Maryland.


To view the paper in full please see here

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