Child Growth: The Long View

The Project

Measuring children's growth over the past two centuries

This project is a three-year project made possible by generous funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). It will reconstruct the growth pattern of British children between 1850 and 1990 to determine how improvements in nutrition, sanitation and medical knowledge influenced children's growth during this period.

 Project Description

This project will explore how improvements in nutrition, sanitation, and medical knowledge during Britain’s long-run health transition from 1850 onwards influenced children’s growth pattern in terms of height, weight and BMI. Studying children’s growth pattern (velocity of growth and shape of the growth curve) rather than their height at a specific age is a significant methodological innovation. Adaptive theories of human development and growth stress how exposure to poor nutrition or disease, especially in utero, does not merely affect the child’s current height but also the timing of the pubertal growth spurt, their velocity of growth and the length of the growing period: in other words, their growth pattern. This project will extend existing knowledge of children’s growth in Britain in three ways: first, by reconstructing boys’ longitudinal growth measurements from training ship records spanning the century and a half from 1865 onwards; second, by producing and analysing new growth profiles for boys and girls aged 3 to 19 from historical sources; and third, by placing the change in Britain’s growth pattern in international context using growth profiles collected from 1850 to the present from around the world.

The data produced will supply a longer-run perspective on the immediate and intergenerational factors influencing children’s growth patterns in Britain and internationally and indicate how the shift from an unhealthy to healthy growth pattern took place. The data will also assemble new evidence on historical BMI growth curves and child obesity rates, providing historical context for the current child obesity crisis. The project’s findings are particularly relevant to the current discussion about a post-2015 development framework to replace the Millennium Development Goals and to understanding the childhood obesity crisis and will inform health interventions and development policy goals for improving the health of children in both the developing and developed worlds.

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