Supporting parents

  • 2020

Our brains are constantly developing throughout our lives but one of the most sensitive stages for brain development is from birth to three years. Too many children in the UK go on to experience difficulties in their lives because they have been denied a nurturing environment that supports brain development in the earliest years of life.

This issue is closely linked with poverty. Children who grow up in households that face economic hardship and all that comes with it – such as irregular work schedules, unstable income, lack of social support, and mental and physical health issues – are exposed to excessive amounts of stress. This can disrupt the architecture of their developing brains.

Every parent wants the very best for their child. However, having to juggle competing demands day in, day out can require a great deal of effort, leaving parents with little time to spend with their children.

Programmes designed to address this challenge must take account of the critical decisions parents make every day under stress and uncertainty. They must reflect the fact that most parents in the first few years of their child’s life operate on little sleep, constantly feel as though they are being stretched in multiple directions, and may lack social support from family and friends.

Behavioural insights can help to support parents to create effective home learning environments for their young children. In our work over the years, we’ve identified many behavioural biases parents face on a daily basis, such as ‘present bias’, ‘availability bias’ and even ‘loss aversion’.

Over the next three to five years, we hope to focus our attention on ensuring children have the best opportunities in the following two areas.


Growing up physically and emotionally healthy

In the UK, 25 per cent of children (aged 2–4) are overweight – an increase of 49 per cent since 1990 (Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, 2017). Obesity during childhood has long-lasting consequences: obese children are less likely to transition to tertiary education (Ryabov, 2018) and earn less as adults (Cawley, 2004). There are also many implications for children’s mental health, such as having low self-esteem or (in the more severe cases) developing disorders.

Behavioural insights can play a role by:

  • assisting parents to make better choices in relation to their children’s diets – for example, encouraging breastfeeding, devising simple rules of thumb for snack and meal times, and leveraging the ‘big moments’ in a child’s first five years (e.g. first tooth) to promote positive behaviours for healthy physical and cognitive growth;
  • helping industry to play its part in reducing childhood obesity (e.g. installing signs with information on which foods make healthy snacks).

Receiving support from their parents

Around 27 per cent of women and 10 per cent of men suffer from mental health issues after becoming parents (NCCMH, 2018). Children who grow up in homes where there are mental health issues are at risk of not having their physical and cognitive developmental needs met, and this can have a profound impact on their education.

Behavioural insights can play a role by:

  • making it easy for parents to access mental health services during pregnancy and postnatally;
  • mobilising support networks for parents via the NCT and other channels (e.g. connecting parents whose children were born in the same week);
  • leveraging touch points throughout pregnancy (e.g. the 20-week scan or home visits from a nurse).