Birth Weight and Early Cognitive Skills: Can Parenting Offset the Link?


Cognitive development, Birth weight, Early childhood, Parenting


Objectives There is an enduring negative association between low birth weight (<2500 >g) and early childhood cognitive skills. This study examines if parenting practices meaningfully contribute to or offset birth weight disparities in cognitive development prior to formal schooling. Methods This study uses the ECLS-B, a nationally representative sample of live births in the United States in 2001. Unlike studies focused on one or two measures of parenting and investment, this study considers a wide array parenting measures collected at multiple time points, tracked from before birth across 5 years of development. ResultsRegression results show that nearly 50 % of the low-birth-weight gap in early math and reading ability is associated with family socioeconomic status. Between-family OLS regressions show that parenting practices, including “parental interaction,” “cognitive stimulation,” and “parent quality”, are negatively associated with low birth weight and positively associated with improved cognitive skill among all children. After adjustment for family socioeconomic status, parenting practices did little to offset (by mediation or moderation) remaining birth weight disparities in early cognitive development. ConclusionsEffective parenting is positively associated with cognitive development, but parenting is not a panacea—the developmental disadvantages associated with poor child health are not linked to parenting practices. We argue that birth weight disparities are rooted in biology and cannot easily be offset by parenting practices.

Original Publication Citation

Lynch, Jamie, and Benjamin G. Gibbs [equal contribution]. “Birth Weight, Parenting, and Early Cognitive Development” Maternal and Child Health Journal 21:156-167.

Document Type

Peer-Reviewed Article

Publication Date


Permanent URL


Maternal and Child Health Journal




Family, Home, and Social Sciences



University Standing at Time of Publication

Associate Professor