The researchers found that food insecurity experienced during early childhood was unfavourably linked with social-emotional outcomes in nursery. Results are less consistent for cognitive outcomes.
"Timing of food insecurity matters," said lead researcher Anna Johnson, assistant professor of psychology at Georgetown University.
“Food insecurity during the preschool years was less consistently related to performance in kindergarten but when it was, associations were also negative.”
While this is a US study, the findings have much relevance in reducing the inequalities noted in early skills development for the millions of European children raised in food-insecure households.
The United Nations recently said that an estimated 8.4 million people were living in households reporting having insufficient food in the UK in 2014, the 6th largest economy in the world.
The Poverty and Social Exclusion research project conducted a survey in 2012 and found that 4% of UK children lived in families who could not afford to feed them properly.
Food insecurity episodes
Researchers from Georgetown University and the University of Virginia used nationally representative data focusing on 3,700 low-income households.
Parents were interviewed and children were assessed when they were nine months old, and again when they were two, four and five years old.
Links between the timing and intensity of food insecurity in early childhood and children's reading, maths, and social-emotional scores in preschool were also analysed.
Here, the team specifically looked at the children's reading and numerical skills when they started preschool, as well as hyperactivity levels, conduct problems and approaches to learning.
"Having more episodes of food insecurity in early childhood -- that is, having three episodes of food insecurity versus one or two -- was linked with poorer outcomes in kindergarten across all areas of development," explained Dr Johnson.
Food and brain development
This research, published in the journal Child Development, attempts to bridge the gap in understanding associations between food insecurity in early childhood and skills at preschool
The research is all the more significant considering the stages at which the children were assessed correspond to key early developmental checkpoints.
Unsurprisingly, increasing episodes of food insecurity — from one to two to three compared with none — across early childhood is linked with poorer preschool outcomes across all domains of development.
The authors hypothesised the effects of food insecurity on brain development could include reduced myelination, which can occur under mild undernutrition conditions and reduced cortical growth that could stem from inadequate nutrition.
Prenatal food insecurity, which many of the mothers in the sample likely tolerated, and possibly postnatal food insecurity experienced directly by children was also a consideration for the team.
“Emerging evidence has called attention to the possibility that insufficient quantities of a third nutrient—docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—may also harm early brain development, as maternal DHA intake during pregnancy predicted cognitive development in the first two years of life,” the study highlighted.
While the authors pointed out that the estimates were noncausal, “nevertheless, these findings are worrisome," said co-author Anna Markowitz, postdoctoral research associate in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.
"Increasing the generosity of food assistance programs and ensuring that they reach children whose families are food insecure or at risk for food insecurity in the earliest years -- when children are two or younger -- could boost the early school success of these vulnerable children."
Source: Child Development
Published online ahead of print: DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12764
“Associations Between Household Food Insecurity in Early Childhood and Children's Kindergarten Skills.”
Authors: Anna Johnson, Anna Markowitz