Duchess of Cambridge spearheads early years study involving UCL

The Duchess of Cambridge has unveiled the findings of the biggest ever UK study on the early years, involving researchers at UCL and the Anna Freud Centre.

The study marks a milestone moment for her work on the importance of early childhood in shaping the rest of our lives and broader societal outcomes.

The Royal Foundation commissioned Ipsos MORI to conduct the research, revealing what the UK thinks about the early years. It also explores how COVID-19 has impacted the perceptions and experiences of parents and carers of the under-fives.

Professors Peter Fonagy and Eamon McCrory (UCL Psychology & Language Sciences) were both members of The Royal Foundation steering group for the study, representing UCL’s extensive research into social development in the early years.

The publication of this research follows nine years of work by The Duchess of Cambridge in which she has looked at how difficult experiences in early childhood are often the root cause of key social challenges such as poor mental health, family breakdown, addiction and homelessness - with the cost of late intervention estimated to be around £17 billion per year in England and Wales.

Throughout this time, The Duchess has listened extensively to the early years sector, convening a steering group of experts in 2018 to look at how collaborative work could bring about positive change. In January, Her Royal Highness asked the general public for their views - sparking a national conversation on the early years through the ’5 Big Questions on the Under Fives’ survey, which attracted over half a million responses, making it the biggest ever survey of its kind.

The research published today includes the findings of the 5 Big Questions as well as further qualitative and ethnographic research, a nationally representative survey conducted before the pandemic, and a survey on the impact of COVID-19 on families, which together yielded five key insights:

People overwhelmingly believe that a child’s future is not pre-determined at birth. However, most people don’t understand the specific importance of the early years.

  • Answering the 5 Big Questions, 98% of people believe nurture is essential to lifelong outcomes, but just one in four recognise the specific importance of the first five years of a child’s life.

The reality of life makes it hard for parents to prioritise their wellbeing.

  • 90% of people see parental mental health and wellbeing as being critical to a child’s development, but in reality people do very little to prioritise themselves. Only 10% of parents mentioned taking the time to look after their own wellbeing when asked how they had prepared for the arrival of their baby. Worryingly, over a third of all parents (37%) expect the COVID-19 pandemic to have a negative impact on their long-term mental wellbeing.

Feeling judged by others can make a bad situation worse.

  • 70% of parents feel judged by others and among these parents, nearly half feel this negatively impacts their mental health.

People have been separated from family and friends during the pandemic and at the same time parental loneliness has dramatically increased. People are also less willing to seek help for how they’re feeling.

  • Parental loneliness has dramatically increased during the pandemic from 38% before to 63% as parents have been cut off from friends and family. The increase in loneliness for parents is more apparent in the most deprived areas. These parents are more than twice as likely as those living in the least deprived areas to say they feel lonely often or always (13% compared with 5%). Compounding this, it seems there has been a rise in the proportion of parents who feel uncomfortable seeking help for how they are feeling from 18% before the pandemic to 34% during it.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, support from local communities has substantially increased for many - but not for all.

  • Across the UK, communities have united powerfully to meet the challenge of unprecedented times. 40% of parents feel that community support has grown. However, parents in the most deprived areas are less likely to have experienced this increased support (33%) than elsewhere.

Professor Fonagy, Head of UCL Psychology & Language Sciences and Anna Freud Centre Chief Executive, said: "HRH The Duchess of Cambridge has been a passionate advocate for children, particularly in their early years. This new report is an urgent reminder that we need to make sure that parents and carers have the support they need, so that all children can thrive. It is a very welcome contribution at this time.

"There is nothing more important we can do for the youngest members of our society than to give them a fair and equal start in life. How we support them during this period will have an impact on their happiness, their health and their chances of realising their potential. No parent can achieve this alone, instead they need networks of friends and family, as well as lasting support from health and education. That way, we create a nurturing community around each and every child."

Professor McCrory, Co-Director of the Developmental Risk and Resilience Unit at UCL, said: "The work by The Royal Foundation shines an important light on the critical role the early years play in shaping life-long health and wellbeing. In her work the Duchess sees first-hand the toll homelessness, addiction and mental health can have in adulthood, and it is clear that she understands that the root of many of these problems lie in childhood.

"This report highlights the urgent need for a collective societal response, that transforms the role each of us plays in nurturing the next generation. UCL, with its exceptional research expertise in mental health, developmental neuroscience and clinical psychology, is uniquely positioned to help advance that ambition."