Children who do not reach key developmental milestones at just nine months old are far more likely to struggle at school, according to an important study published on Wednesday.
The Millennium Cohort Study of nearly 15,000 children says that babies who were slow to develop their motor skills at nine months were significantly more likely to be identified as behind in their cognitive development, and also likely to be less well behaved at age five.
The findings will intensify the debate on how far the government should intervene to stop those from disadvantaged backgrounds falling behind before they even reach school.
The correlation between performance at nine months and five years was said to be significant even after the researchers considered the impact of poverty on children’s development.
The difficulties facing children from poor backgrounds are likely to be a key election battleground.
However, critics of early intervention say parents should be left to bring up their children without detailed monitoring.
Academics from London University’s Institute of Education analysed the progress of 14,853 children, born in 2000 and 2001, from birth to five. The children’s cognitive development was assessed at the age of five through a series of vocabulary, spatial reasoning and picture tests, and their results compared with those from separate assessments years earlier.
The results at five were strongly linked to the babies’ abilities in tests for gross motor development, such as crawling, and fine motor development, such as holding objects with their fingers, at nine months.
The researchers also found that children who are read to every day at three are likely to be flourishing in a wide range of subjects by the age of five.
Children who failed at nine months to reach four key milestones in gross motor development, relating to sitting unaided, crawling, standing and taking their first walking steps, were found to be five points behind on average in cognitive ability tests taken at age five, compared to those who passed the milestones.
This equates to the difference between being in the middle of the ability range in the cognitive tests, and being below average.