Growing Up in Ireland: what we've learned from a decade of research

Extensive study on 19,000 children will play key role in influencing future State policies

A quarter of our three-year-olds are overweight or obese; 50 per cent of Irish-born mothers don’t even start to breastfeed their babies; 16 per cent of 13-year-olds have drunk alcohol, and one in five adolescent girls has self-harmed.

These are just a few of thousands of findings by the Growing Up in Ireland (GUI) study – the biggest and most complex social science project ever to be undertaken in this country.

While media headlines about GUI's observations of the lives of our children come and go, the constant availability of the information it gathers is crucial to researchers and policymakers. A joint project between the Economic Social Research Institute (ESRI) and Trinity College, Dublin, its annual cost to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs is €2.5 million.

The way the study has been tracking the progress of the same children through childhood, education and into the start of adulthood, gives invaluable insights into the myriad factors and circumstances that shape the path from the cradle onwards.


The 10th annual Growing Up in Ireland conference this Thursday, November 8th, will mark a decade of research that has evolved from the mining of facts and viewpoints collected from a nationally representative spread of children, along with their parents and teachers. The focus has been on 19,000 children in two age groups – from nine years old and from nine months old – and after the initial gathering of data, they have been revisited at key stages.

Detailed picture

Former taoiseach Enda Kenny talked about making Ireland "one of the best small countries to grow up in and raise a family", at the 2014 launch of 160 policy commitments in a national action plan for children and young people, called Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures. Both it and the upcoming first national early years strategy to be launched later this month would have drawn heavily on the detailed picture of childhood that GUI provides. The State needs to know what's actually going on in children's lives before it can hope to find ways to improve them.

"Historically, policymakers have been condemned for shooting in the dark and acting from their own anecdotal biases maybe," says Prof James Williams, GUI's principal investigator from the outset until his retirement from the ESRI last July. Now the evidence base is there to illuminate courses of action that should pay off both socially and economically.

Ireland was very late in coming to a longitudinal study of its youngest citizens. Most if not all other developed countries had ones running long before the new millennium.

Britain embarked on its first in 1946 and now has four such, large-scale ongoing surveys. It was 2002 before the government here announced the setting up of the GUI.

"The absence of research about the lives of children in Ireland has led us to rely on international material," the then minister for children, Mary Hanafin, pointed out at that announcement. "This study means that Irish information about Irish children can influence Irish policies," she added.

The planning and design of the study took another four years before the first phase (2006-2014) began with 8,500 nine-year-olds being recruited randomly through the primary school system in 2006/2007.

Not only were interviews conducted with the children and their primary and secondary care-givers (as defined by families themselves), but their school principal and class teacher were also asked to fill in questionnaires about themselves, school resources and the child.

These children were reinterviewed at age 13, 17 and now GUI is just about to meet them again at the age of 20. This group was originally called the “child cohort” but, as befits their now adult status, they are also referred to as the ‘98 cohort – the year most of them were born.

Meanwhile, a second cohort of more than 11,000 nine-month-old babies was randomly selected through the child benefit register for a parallel tracking study. Obviously, at that age their parents were the source of information, with retrospective details gathered about pregnancy, labour and delivery, as well as the first months of the baby’s life. The infant was weighed, and length and head circumference measurements taken.


These families were revisited for intensive face-to-face interviews when the child was aged three years and again at five years. A postal survey was conducted with the main care-givers at ages seven/eight and the GUI’s 180-strong field-work team has just finished interviewing them again at nine years of age.

The children have been actively involved since age three, when they did cognitive tests using the internationally recognised British Ability Scales. At five years, where the children had started school, the principal and class teachers participated in the same way as described above for the nine-year-olds. This was repeated at the age of nine, when the GUI also carried out the standardised Drumcondra tests with them.

Prof Williams praises the “tremendous commitment on part of teachers and principals” that all this involved, along with the “phenomenal commitment” by all the families taking part in GUI. There is no financial renumeration for their participation, only the satisfaction that they are contributing to a greater understanding of how to make children’s lives as happy, healthy and rewarding as possible.

In exploring three domains of children’s lives: physical development and health, education and socio-emotional behaviour, GUI is trying to understand what differentiates a child in terms of good outcomes and those that are less than positive, he explains.

“You take two kids at nine months of age, who start more or less the same length, same weight and maybe by and large the same family circumstances. Why is it one kid has gone this way and the other has gone that way?” says Williams, using his arms to indicate diverging paths, as he sits in the ESRI offices off Sir John Rogerson’s Quay in Dublin.

Going back to the same families enables analysis of the children’s developmental paths, to identify the turning points. Was there a key factor in maybe their family circumstances or education, that would explain subsequent choices and events?

This can inform policymakers, he explains, about the critical pressure points in a child’s life, and what to look out for. This is where you might have to put a safety net to catch the kids who are falling – or, preferably, do it before they start falling. “It is better to put a notice at the top of the cliff ‘Warning: Danger’ than to put an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff,” he says.

The data has flagged, for instance, Ireland’s place in the “international pandemic” of childhood obesity. Some 26 per cent of children here are either overweight or obese.

Williams remembers being very surprised at the level of obesity among the three-year-olds – 24 per cent were classed as overweight or obese. It is only since GUI started doing this work that the profile of high BMI (body mass index) and obesity has really been raised in this country, he suggests.

A large part of applied policy research like this is to start to make people aware of issues. “Then you have a public discourse, it is raised on to the public agenda; it gets into the policy space and you start to do something about it. It is a slow, iterative process.”

Social inequalities

With problems such as childhood obesity, you begin to see social inequalities, he says. There is a much lower risk among children from wealthier families or those with higher education or better work records. It is clear too, he says, that children from disadvantaged backgrounds have less chance of participating in sport.

Take also the transition to secondary school. GUI has found that by and large 13-year-old kids settle in well to second-level education. However, “unfortunately you see these inequalities – children from more disadvantaged families have more transition problems, even in terms of liking school and liking teachers”.

Looking back at the study results for nine-year-olds, the likelihood of such problems is clearly indicated.

“What you see is the kids who were finding it tough at nine years of age are now the kids finding it difficult at 13 as well. You might say ‘so what’ but I think that is a big issue,” stresses Williams. “It shows that the early experience is critical and [it’s] about getting something done then.”

Looking right back to nine months, you may see something that happens, which sends that child’s life into a cumulative spiral, he says.

Comparison of data from nine years and 13 years also highlights the persistence in overweight and obesity issues. “Once that behaviour pattern sets in at nine, it is difficult to change it.”

For Williams, the most surprising set of statistics produced by GUI so far was around the breastfeeding initiation rate in the nine-month-old cohort. They were not only way out of step with similar international studies but they also illuminated a stark difference between the practices of Irish mothers and those not born here but giving birth in Irish maternity hospitals.

Williams is not sure whether he should admit that because the huge discrepancy jumped out at him, he asked for a recheck of the data, just to make sure. However, the evidence was incontrovertible – “if you are a mother born in Ireland, about 50 per cent of you will initiate breastfeeding, [if you are a] non-Irish-born mother, 84 per cent of you will breast feed”.

It is also clear that the longer non-Irish-born women live here, the less likely they are to initiate breastfeeding. “Whatever it is, we seem to enculturate them out of it.”


This is one trend, says Williams, which marks us out as very different from, say, New Zealand, Australia and Britain, where initiation rates are in the 80s or 90s. Indeed, a Unicef report released last May showed that among 123 countries, Ireland had the lowest rate of "ever breastfeeding" – at 55 per cent.

Two years ago, Williams and a number of other GUI colleagues edited a collection of essays entitled Cherishing All the Children Equally? to mark 100 years since the Easter Rising. The book explored the extent to which the principles of equality espoused by Patrick Pearse in the Proclamation outside the GPO were reflected in the outcomes and wellbeing of all groups of children in 2016.

The answer to its title, on the basis of evidence presented by GUI, must be “no”, its editors concluded. Although they acknowledged that a huge amount of progress had been made, particularly since the 1970s, in health, education, supports for families and children’s rights.

Williams is keen to make clear that it’s not a question of good parenting or bad parenting, but rather access to resources that largely drives good and bad outcomes for children, eg their families’ financial circumstances or the home-learning environment. What GUI attempts to do is to indicate how the State might be able to help level the playing field – and, in the long-term, show the effectiveness of such interventions.

If, as hoped, further funding for GUI is secured after the end of the second phase (2014-2019), the older half of it will no longer be a study of children. But if you want to understand the importance of supports in childhood, you want to track the impact into adulthood, says Williams who, having given more than a third of his working life to GUI, has handed over the reins to Prof Dorothy Watson and Prof Emer Smyth.

Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone in a statement to The Irish Times, says she is committed to ensuring the future of the "hugely beneficial" Growing Up in Ireland study. Work is already under way on planning for the next phase, "subject to the necessary Government approval and funding".

GUI has, she adds, “generated a comprehensive bank of scientifically sound and policy-relevant evidence to help inform the development and implementation of effective policies, services and interventions. This is vital, given my department’s commitment to improving the lives of children and their families through an evidence-informed approach.”

What we have learned about our children from Growing Up in Ireland

At nine months . . .
– 38% are in non-parental childcare (for more than eight hours a week), most commonly with grandparents.
– 11% are in centre-based care, spending an average of 29 hours a week there.
– Boys (1.4%) are significantly more likely than girls (0.8%) to be reported as being "sometimes or often unwell".
– 4% of infants have had an accident that required medical attention.

At three years . . .
– Almost a quarter are overweight (6% classed as obese).
– 16% have at least one longstanding illness, condition or disability, the most common being asthma (5.8%).
– 53% have mothers who work outside the home; for those with degree-level educated mothers that rises to 72%.
– 91% have regular contact with grandparents.

At five years . . .
– 86% live in two-parent families.
– Average age of their mother is 36.2 years and their resident father is 39.2 years.
– For discipline, mothers (69%) are more likely than fathers (55%) to say that they always discuss or explain to the child why the behaviour was wrong.
– On average, children in the lowest income group consume 23% more calories per day than those in the highest income group.
– 76% "very healthy, no problems", down from 80% at birth.

At nine years . . .
– 11% have chronic illness or disability, but 99% of parents say child is in good health.
– 76% live with both biological parents.
– 45% have a TV in their bedroom.
– 93% like school, at least "sometimes".

At 13 years . . .
– 99% get on well, or very well, with their mother and 98% with their father.
– 70% spend time talking with their mum, but just 60% with their dad.
– 72% do "fun things" with their dad, 63% with their mum.
– 35% of girls like school "very much", compared with 23% of boys.
– 26% are overweight, including 6% obese.

At 17/18 years
– 80% live in two-parent households.
– Just under 10% diagnosed with depression or anxiety.
– 24% dislike(d) being at school.
– A third of those still in school have part-time jobs, working an average nine hours per week during term time.