A University of Calgary study is following families from the birth of their children through adolescence.
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Thirty-five per cent of children in Calgary hear a language other than English in the home. Children in the city sleep on average 10.5 hours a night. And their parents turn to family and friends, teachers and the pediatrician — in that order — for advice on parenting.It also turns out about a third of little kids in Alberta are facing developmental challenges — more so than in many other places in Canada. Kids are having trouble with things like motor skills, communication, problem-solving and social skills. Why? Researchers at the University of Calgary are trying to find out in a really big, really long study.The All Our Families Cohort started in 2008 when 3,200 hundred pregnant women from across the city signed up and agreed to answer a few survey questions a few times a year. As their babies have grown, the questions have shifted from breastfeeding to bullying. Parents have answered questions about their own mental health, how they live their lives, what they do for fun and how well the family sleeps.The information helps researchers understand how parents’ well-being affects the kids’ and how to identify risk factors early, when we could step in and prevent problems. “This is about public health — what’s in the best interest of most people, most of the time,” says Dr. Suzanne Tough, a professor in the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary. Most of the people in the longitudinal study are likely to be middle class, the majority have partners and at any given time about 15 per cent of the families are addressing mental health concerns.The study has shown that kids get too much screen time and not enough play time. Almost half of kids under five are not meeting the recreation and physical activity guidelines for play and movement. And, up to half the kids aren’t getting a daily dose of books, singing silly songs or playing peekaboo and other imitation games with grown-ups — the interactions that give kids the “foundational skills” they need to do well when they get to school.These activities help little kids learn to self-regulate — that is, figure out how to follow simple instructions like line up at the door, put on your mittens or hang up your coat. “Children that don’t have good self-regulation by the time they get to school are also less likely to have friends at school and less likely to feel accepted,” says Tough. “They may be more likely to act out with aggressive behaviour and that starts a bit of a downward spiral in terms of relationships with your peers and your school system.”Ready for some good news? Here it is: Taking kids with some of these issues to the pool for a swim, a drop-in children’s play program or the public library for story time can make a world of difference. “They actually start to rebound and achieve their developmental milestones,” says Tough. “I think one of the most uplifting surprises (in the study) is quantifying the value of our investments in community supports and really reassuring people that these matter. They can be the tipping point between families falling into despair and depression and being able to stay in the game.”While parents of children who don’t fit in may be tempted to keep them home, it may be better to get them more involved in activities with other kids. It’s a win/win — the kids get to see other role models and the parents get some support.While the researchers have discovered much in the last 11 years since the first baby was born in the study, they have much more to learn. This summer, Tough and her colleagues are going to dig into the data about how Calgary’s economic downturn — which started the same year as the study — is affecting the families and their now tween-aged children.“We have asked the participants to tell us how the downturn has affected their life,” she says. “We’re hearing about the challenges they face with job loss, a number of families have moved or relocated, a number of them have had role shifts where a parent that was at home is now the parent who is working.” An early look at the downturn data suggests many families are managing more conflict at home due to more stress, less income and other supports. But at the same time, many are pleased with how their communities have stepped up to help them.The researchers are getting ready for the next phase of the study (which will continue as long as the funding does). “We’re planning a 12-year followup,” says Tough. “We’re looking forward to understanding how the transition to adolescence happens in the digital age in a softened Alberta economy.”Aren’t we all.