New cohort study shows parents prioritise connections
The Sector > Research > Most primary caregivers are finding time to connect with baby, new cohort study finds

Most primary caregivers are finding time to connect with baby, new cohort study finds

by Freya Lucas

December 05, 2023

Most modern parents are finding the time to talk to, cuddle, and play with their babies, according to the findings of a new study following more than 8,500 families and their babies born in England between September and November 2021. 


The Children of the 2020s study is the first long-term, nationally representative study of babies since the UK Millennium Cohort Study 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, shedding new light on the factors that can influence early years development. The first survey took place when the babies were, on average, nine and a half months old. 


The UK Department for Education (DfE) is heading up the study which is led by University College London (UCL) in partnership with Ipsos and the universities of Cambridge and Oxford, and Birkbeck, University of London.


In this first survey, researchers learned that four in every five primary caregivers of nine month old babies were finding time to connect with the baby 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 – activities which were linked to improved early language development. 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 these babies, most of those daily interactions will be with their father, who is their primary caregiver. Just 20 years ago, only one in 1,000 (0.11 per cent) of nine-month-olds were cared for primarily by their dad at this age. 


Overall, nine-month-olds understood an average of 14 out of 51 common words. This was similar to pre-pandemic norms, despite added pressure on today’s families, with the study revealing that these home activities are having positive effects on babies’ understanding of common words, like ‘ball’, ‘bye-bye’ and ‘mummy’, as babies that played more with caregivers understood more words at this age.  


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


Other key findings include: 


  • 32 per cent of today’s primary caregivers were on parental leave from their job when their child was nine months old, compared to just 2.5 per cent of primary caregivers 20 years ago. 
  • Compared to parents raising children two decades ago, today’s caregivers are more likely to be educated to degree level or higher (50 per cent v 33 per cent), and employed (71 per cent vs 51 per cent).  


Family finances 


  • 25 per cent of families with nine-month-olds had experienced significant financial strain, such as having difficulties managing finances, not keeping up with bills, being unable to afford essential baby items, and having to skip or cut the size of meals. 
  • Today’s parents are less likely to own their home (50 per cent v 64 per cent) and more likely to rent (42 per cent vs 31 per cent) than parents two decades ago. 
  • 47 per cent of today’s parents own their home with the help of a loan or mortgage, and 3 per cent of families own their home outright. Among those renting when their babies were nine months, 24 per cent rented from a private landlord, 10 per cent from a local authority, and 8 per cent from a housing association.  




  • 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. 


Screen use 


  • 72 per cent of parents said their nine-month-olds spent some time watching television, videos or screens every day. On average, children who watched screens typically did so for an average of 41 minutes a day, however 7 per cent of babies had more than two hours of screen time per day and 28 per cent had none at all. 
  • Children of the 2020s is one of the first and largest studies to measure screen time in infancy. 


Play and language development 


  • At nine months, those who often played turn-taking games, like peek-a-boo, with their caregivers understood five more words, on average, than babies who did these things least. Similarly, those who were read to several times a day understood four more words, and babies who engaged in frequent physical play understood three more words, on average. 
  • While the researchers caution they do not yet know whether these babies that understand more words at nine months will continue to progress more quickly, the findings are in line with other evidence that play in infancy and early childhood can improve long term language and cognitive development. 


“We are extremely excited to unveil these first findings from the landmark Children of the 2020s study, the first new national study of babies to be launched since the millennium,” said study director Professor Pasco Fearon. 


“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.”


View the findings here. For more information, visit the Children of the 2020s study website.

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