Intergenerational determinants of offspring size at birth: a life course and graphical analysis using the Aberdeen Children of the 1950s Study (ACONF)

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Background: Size at birth has taken on renewed significance due to its now well-established association with many health and health-related outcomes in both the immediate perinatal period and across the entire life course. Optimizing fetal growth to improve both neonatal survival and population health is the focus of much research and policy development, although most efforts have concentrated on either the period of pregnancy itself or the period immediately preceding it.

Methods: Intergenerational data linked to the Aberdeen Children of the 1950s (ACONF) study were used to examine the influence of grandparental and parental life course biological and social variables on the distribution of offspring size at birth. Guided stepwise multivariable methods and a graphical approach were used to assess the relative importance of these temporally ordered and highly correlated life course measures.

Results: Both distal and proximal grandparental and parental life course biological and social factors predicted offspring size at birth. Inequalities in size at birth, according to adult maternal socioeconomic indicators, were found to be largely generated by the continuity of the social environment across generations, and the inequalities in maternal early life growth were predicted by the adult grandparental social environment during the mother’s early life. Mother’s own size at birth predicted her offspring’s intrauterine growth, independent of her adult biological and social characteristics.

Conclusions: A mother’s childhood social environment and her early growth are both important predictors of her offspring’s size at birth. Population strategies aimed at optimizing size at birth require broader social and intergenerational considerations, in addition to focusing on the health of mothers in the immediate pregnancy period.

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