Women 'should be paid child benefit during pregnancy'

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Child benefit should be extended to pregnant women in an effort to help parents in the crucial early stages of a baby's development, a Labour think-tank says today.

Child benefit should be extended to pregnant women in an effort to help parents in the crucial early stages of a baby's development, a Labour think-tank says today.

Expectant mothers should receive child benefit after their 12-week scan and a new higher rate of the benefit should be paid to families with children under one, says the Institute of Public Policy Research.

Paying mothers before they gave birth would cost £300m, but the institute said the "considerable investment" could lead to savings by improving the health and life chances of new-born babies.

The institute, often cited as Tony Blair's favourite think-tank, gave no figures for an enhanced benefit in the child's first year and instead called for research to assess the real costs of having a child.

The call for Labour to "shift the focus" of its child poverty strategy to unborn babies and those under the age of one comes as the Government unveils a £60m scheme to help pregnant mothers. Yvette Cooper, the Public Health minister, will announce today that the "Sure Start" programme to help families with young children in 250 disadvantaged areas will for the first time include health advice and support for expectant mothers.

The importance of the earliest months of a child's life was underlined last week by a study which showed heavier babies were brainier and achieved more at school and in young adulthood than low birth-weight babies. The Medical Research Council study supported the theory that brain development is dependent on nutrition in the womb. The 1988 Acheson report on health inequalities also linked pregnant women's diet, income and health to the weight of babies.

In America, studies have shown that underweight babies were more likely to suffer illness later in life, but if disadvantaged mothers were given extra money during pregnancy they gave birth to heavier babies.

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