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Neighbourhood socioeconomic status and maternal factors at birth as moderators of the association between birth characteristics and school attainment: a population study of children attending government schools in Western Australia


Background: This article investigates whether reading and writing skills among children of equivalent perinatal characteristics differ by neighbourhood socioeconomic status and maternal factors.

Methods: Notifications of births for all non-Aboriginal singletons born in 1990–7 in Western Australia subsequently attending government primary schools were linked to the State literacy tests in grade three and with information on socioeconomic status of the school and the residential area. Using multilevel modelling, the associations between birth characteristics (gestational age, intrauterine growth, birth order and Apgar score at 5 minutes) and literacy attainment in grade three were examined in models that included socioeconomic and demographic factors of the child, mother and community.

Results: Higher percentages of optimal head circumference and birth length and term birth were positively and independently associated with literacy scores. A higher percentage of optimal birth weight was associated with higher reading scores especially for children born to mothers residing in educationally advantaged areas. First birth was positively associated with reading and writing attainment: this association was stronger for children born to single mothers and additional advantage in writing was also associated with first birth in children living in disadvantaged areas.

Conclusions: These findings suggest that having suboptimal growth in utero or an older sibling at birth increases vulnerability to poor literacy attainment especially among children born to single mothers or those in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. These data provide evidence for advocating lifestyles compatible with optimum fetal growth and socioeconomic conditions conducive to healthy lifestyles, particularly during pregnancy.

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