Pubertal growth spurt is a recent phenomenon

6 Mar 2019 04:14 PM

New research into historical changes in children’s growth patterns could help to tackle stunting in developing countries.

The teenage growth spurt has been the bane of many a parent who has to fork out for a whole new school uniform halfway through the school year. But it is a relatively recent phenomenon as new research has found that the average child born before 1910 in Britain did not experience this sudden increase in height around puberty.

Economic historian Dr Eric Schneider, of the London School of Economics and Political Science, has been researching the changing growth pattern of children in Britain, considering not just the changing height of children over the past century and a half, but also the speed at which children have grown and the age at which they mature.

Dr Schneider says:

“It is important because it links to the child stunting crisis in the developing world today, where many children are too short for their age.”

Reducing stunting is a target in the Millennium Development Goals as stunted children perform poorly on cognitive tests, receive fewer years of schooling and have lower incomes as adults. 

The Economic and Social Research Council-funded study, Child Growth: The Long View, looked at child growth data from Britain in the period 1865-1995. 

Its findings are: 

Dr Schneider says:

“It really is striking that we find that there is basically no strong pubertal growth spurt before the people born in the 1910s. I was surprised. I expected to find a later pubertal growth spurt that had shifted to earlier ages over time. But I didn’t expect really to find no pubertal growth spurt.”

Although good nutrition is part of the reason why populations grow taller, it is not necessarily the cause of the change in the growth spurt. Dr Schneider says: “The major improvements in nutrition in Britain really take place in the second half of the 19th century and so I would have expected children’s growth to change then. The fact that it changes at a later period I think suggests that it is more about child morbidity, the chronic diseases that just make children sick and prevent them from growing at a faster rate.” 

Traditional views consider that nutrition and health conditions in the first thousand days of a child’s life up to the age of two are the most important for a child’s development. Because of this, many health interventions are put in place to help in the first two years. Parallel research undertaken by Dr Schneider using Japanese data has also found that adolescence is also a key time in terms of impact on growth.

Dr Schneider says:

“We find that actually shocks to health are decreasing height every year in childhood and adolescence. Children can mitigate some of the losses that they experienced early in life. Our research shows that you could look to adolescence as a period for additional interventions that might help people catch up and to make up some of the loss that they experienced earlier in life.”

The implications for his research are about more than just understanding the growth of children in the past. Last September, Dr Schneider organised an interdisciplinary conference: Stunting: Past, Present and Future, which brought together 45 academics, policy-makers and development professionals to discuss the lessons that long-run and global perspectives on changes in children’s growth provide for the current fight against childhood stunting.

He says:

“One of the things that is really interesting is just thinking about using history as a way of testing what kind of interventions might be effective. If we can figure out the things that led British children to grow or Japanese children to grow much taller and to have a healthier growth pattern, then we might be able to use some of those interventions to help people in developing countries.

“It also gives us the idea of the pace of change that we should expect. Japan eradicated stunting over a period of 40 years after World War Two and they had really, really favourable economic conditions and health conditions. When we are looking at countries that are really poor relative to Japan, with lower life expectancies, it may take a lot longer for stunting to be fully eradicated. So, when we are thinking about the sustainable development goals, we need to be a bit realistic about what we can expect countries to achieve in the next ten years.”

Further information

ESRC Press Office:

London School of Economics Press Office:

Notes for editors

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government. More information available on the UKRI website.