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The Wirral Child Health and Development Study joins CLOSER Discovery

Blog | | Stuart Kehl

Mother with her young daughter and son

Researchers can now explore more data in CLOSER Discovery – the UK’s most detailed search engine for longitudinal population studies – with the addition of new content from the Wirral Child Health and Development Study (WCHADS). To mark this exciting development Stuart Kehl, WCHADS Research Technician introduces the study, recent findings, and COVID-19 response.

The Wirral Child Health and Development Study (WCHADS) joined the CLOSER partnership in 2020 and since then, we’ve been adding our questionnaires and metadata to the CLOSER Discovery platform. In the most recent Discovery update, WCHADS added more data from the first few phases of the study, so this seemed like a good time to introduce you to the study and our background, data and findings.

WCHADS (affectionately named The First Steps Study by its participants) was set up in 2006 and has followed the lives of over a thousand families from when the mothers were pregnant with their firstborns. All the families were recruited during their first appointment for antenatal care at Arrowe Park Hospital on the Wirral peninsula in Merseyside, North West England.

The study was established to find out why some children develop behaviour problems from an early age and what factors lead to them persisting and is still going strong collecting data as the children mature into adolescence.

Data collection

Data was collected during pregnancy, at birth, and repeated time points during the study participant’s lives. The data included responses from questionnaires completed by mothers and fathers, and teachers, and since age 11 years the children have also been completing questionnaire.

The study has examined many different areas of interest including mental health, relationship and family functioning, parenting, stressful life events and child peer relationships. We’ve also conducted in-depth observational and psychometric measures collected in detailed family assessments in our lab in Merseyside. During these assessments, physiological measures were recorded which can indicate physical reactions to stressful situations. More information can be found on CLOSER Discovery or on the WCHADS website


Some of the key findings from the WCHADS have come from taking theories from research on animal behaviour and applying them to humans. For instance, in rodents, early life maternal licking and grooming of offspring has been shown to remove the negative effects of prenatal stress on offspring outcomes.

In WCHADS, using mothers’ reports of how often they stroked their infants, we have shown that maternal stroking moderated the effects of prenatal maternal anxiety and depression on multiple different types of infant and child outcomes. In other words, the association between mothers’ depression and anxiety in pregnancy and poorer child outcomes was only present for mothers who did not stroke their infants. This is consistent with the research on animals showing that stroking removed the negative effects of prenatal stress. WCHADS research have shown this effect to gene methylation1 heart rate variability in response to stress2 and parent reported temperament2 ) in infancy, as well as to parent and teacher reported emotional and behavioural problems in childhood4-6.

With further replication these findings have significant potential to inform our understanding of the interplay between pre- and postnatal influences, and ultimately for the development of treatments and services during pregnancy and early infancy. WCHADS is currently seeking to replicate these findings in different child cohorts, and examining within WCHADS whether the effects persist to early adolescence.

COVID-19 research

Recently, researchers from WCHADS have been examining the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on adolescent mental health. Like many of the other longitudinal population studies, WCHADS conducted a COVID-19 focussed survey with families during the pandemic (June 2020) when the children were aged 11-12 years. WCHADS was in the unique position of having also gathered data in the months prior to the onset of the pandemic. This gave us a design almost as strong as a randomised control trial, so the study findings can be readily attributed to a COVID-19 pandemic effect, and at a crucial time point in the emergence of vulnerability for depression.

We have published findings from the pre- and mid-COVID assessments showing an increase in depression and behavioural problems in young adolescents associated with the pandemic6 and are currently preparing another paper including findings from a further follow up collected in July 2021.

WCHADS in CLOSER Discovery

The recent update to CLOSER Discovery means that metadata from WCHADS for a large portion of the mother and father questionnaires from the first 9 phases of the study is available for researchers to explore. This covers data from the 20-week scan in pregnancy up until the age of 2-3 years.

Further reading

1 Murgatroyd, C., Quinn, J. P., Sharp, H. M., Pickles, A., & Hill, J. (2015). Effects of prenatal and postnatal depression, and maternal stroking, at the glucocorticoid receptor gene. Translational psychiatry, 5(5), e560.

2 Sharp, H., Pickles, A., Meaney, M., Marshall, K., Tibu, F., & Hill, J. (2012) Frequency of Infant Stroking Reported by Mothers Moderates the Effect of Prenatal Depression on Infant Behavioural and Physiological Outcomes. PLoS ONE 7(10):e45446. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0045446.

3 Sharp, H., Hill, J., Hellier, J., & Pickles, A. (2015) Maternal antenatal anxiety, postnatal stroking and emotional problems in children: outcomes predicted from pre- and postnatal programming hypotheses. Psychological Medicine 45(2):269-283, DOI: 10.1017/S0033291714001342

4 Pickles, A., Sharp, H., Hellier, J., & Hill, J. (2017) Prenatal anxiety, maternal stroking in infancy, and symptoms of emotional and behavioral disorders at 3.5 years. European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 26:325-334. DOI: 10.1007/s00787-016-0886-6.

5  Hill, J., Pickles, A., Wright, N., Braithwaite, E, & Sharp, H. (2019). Predictions of children’s emotionality from evolutionary and epigenetic hypotheses. Scientific Reports, 9, 2519

Wright, N., Hill, J., Sharp, H., Pickles, A. (2021). Interplay between long-term vulnerability and new risk: young adolescent and maternal mental health immediately before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry Advances, 1(1), e12008. 

Further information

Stuart Kehl is a Research Technician at the Wirral Child Health and Development Study (WCHADS) based at the Institute of Population Health, University of Liverpool.

Follow WCHADS on Twitter: @TheWCHADS

Suggested citation:

Kehl, S. (2022). ‘The Wirral Child Health and Development Study joins CLOSER Discovery’. CLOSER. 26 July 2022. Available at: