Wanted: 15,000 babies for cradle-to-grave survey

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The search has begun for 15,000 millennium babies in the world's biggest investigation of social class and growing up. Their lives will be charted from birth to death and the resulting biographies will provide material for a vast study of British society.

The search has begun for 15,000 millennium babies in the world's biggest investigation of social class and growing up. Their lives will be charted from birth to death and the resulting biographies will provide material for a vast study of British society.

This is the first project of its kind for 30 years, first on computer and it is guaranteed to break new ground, particularly in its investigations of the social networks that dominate our lives.

Researchers will focus on the fates of children from ethnic minority communities and examine how they are affected by racism. They will also look in detail at how men are involved in bringing up children at a time when more mothers are going back to work.

The study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, will be done by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, at the University of London's Institute of Education.

The researchers hope to analyse the progress of the children at eight months, at two years, four, at primary school, secondary school then in adulthood.

There are been three longitudinal surveys of its kind, the National Child Development Studies of 1946, 1958 and 1970 - a style of analysis that Britain has made its own.

All three have led to pioneering research. Evidence that smoking in pregnancy damages children - which prompted the anti-smoking campaign of the 1970s - came from interviews with mothers whose babies were included in the 1958 study.

This question was inserted only after Neville Butler, the paediatrician leading the project, read an article in Reader's Digest that a nun in California had noted that smoking mothers had smaller babies.

The result was the first proof that babies of mothers who smoked heavily in pregnancy were 30 per cent more likely to die, but if women stopped in the fourth month the risk was eliminated.

The studies show class has an ongoing impact despite innovations such as the welfare state. Researchers found working-class babies are nearly twice as likely to die as their wealthier contemporaries.

Recent analysis has shown breast-fed babies have less risk of adult heart disease and that children whose parents take an interest in their education do best at school.

Rona McCandlish, a child in the swinging Sixties and a teenager in the punk rock years, was among 17,000 babies born in the first week of March 1958 chosen for the second child development study.

A teenage Joni Mitchell fan, she remembers being allowed to travel to Paris where she witnessed the 1968 student riots. Now an epidemiologist with a seven-year-old daughter, she still remembers how special it felt to receive a birthday card from the researchers reminding her she was part of a huge extended family.

"My first memory was being brought out of school to be tested and asked questions," said Ms McCandlish.

"I had this sense of being a bit different and that something special was happening. I lived in this small village and my parents ran the primary school of 28 pupils so it made me feel part of the bigger picture.

"It also inspired me in my own career, realising that this sort of research goes on. Most people want to leave something behind and this is all about what happens to real people, whether they end up as heroin addicts or millionaires."

This view is shared by Professor Heather Joshi, deputy director of the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, who is leading the new study.

"In the past we have asked more about medical circumstances and not social networks, like, 'Do your grandparents live nearby?' or if they have problems who they would talk to and whether they have e-mail relationships," she said.

"This will be all about growing up in the new millennium. It's like individual lifelines and life courses which come together for the bigger picture - these are in reality thousands of biographies.

"We've had people from the homeless to millionaires and pop stars in the past. We want to find out where every single baby is going to and why."

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