The baby bonus and obesity

OK now this one had me bemused. On the ABC News website, “Baby bonus leading to fatter kids: economist.” Really? Seems surprising …

A Canberra economist says an increase in the baby bonus could lead to unhealthier children.

Research by the Australian National University’s (ANU) Andrew Leigh and a colleague suggests the introduction of the baby bonus in 2004 led to more children being born overweight, because their deliveries were deliberately delayed to obtain the bonus.

Dr Leigh says a planned increase in the baby bonus from July 1 this year could produce a similar outcome.

“I think people are very familiar with the fact that premature and very light babies tend to have worse health outcomes,” he said.

“But it’s actually also the case that very heavy babies also have worse health outcomes.

“Undercooking is bad and overcooking is bad too.”

Hmm, I guess I should have been aware of this one as Andrew was referring to our joint paper.

The title of the ABC item doesn’t match the content. The baby bonus is not causing childhood obesity; well, except for a few weeks amongst new borns in July 2004, 2006 and possibly 2008. It is just that when the baby bonus jumps in level on the 1st July in those years, parents appear to delay births and what do you know, the average weight of babies born are higher. If you look at the more thoughtful Canberra Times piece today you will see that that can be associated with complications in childbirth.

Anyhow, while it isn’t a cause of childhood obesity, moving the baby bonus payments to $5,000 this July is a bad idea. It will cost taxpayers $250m extra per year (forever!) and it will cause delayed births as parents react to incentives to do just that. Health Minister Roxon, please don’t do this.

[Related: Peter Martin chimes in on axing the baby bonus entirely.]

[Update: ABC softens the story.]

12 thoughts on “The baby bonus and obesity”

  1. This is hilarious. But maybe you should use the ABC’s wording. The only thing guaranteed to trump the policy stupidity that is the baby bonus is the policy stupidity that is the war on child obesity.

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  2. “the average weight of babies born are higher. If you look at the more thoughtful Canberra Times piece today you will see that that can be associated with complications in childbirth.”

    Where is your evidence that it is, as opposed to hand-waving about how it might be?

    By now there should be stats available on maternal and infant mortality and morbidity over the time periods in question. Where is the evidence?

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  3. Well, take a look at the paper we wrote. We actually had a dataset with birth weights and we review the evidence on birth side. If you choose to get your information just from news reports you can’t expect to get the whole picture.

    In terms of mortality, only Western Australia would give us the data and there wasn’t a significant effect. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what was going on in the other states?

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  4. In terms of mortality, only Western Australia would give us the data and there wasn’t a significant effect. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what was going on in the other states?

    So, it is hand-waving. You have no evidence that there were any adverse health effects from delaying birth interventions around baby bonus time. Why hang on to the assumption that there were?

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  5. Lauredhel, we present the following evidence in the paper:
    – the Baby Bonus is associated with more high birthweight babies (>4kg)
    – high birthweight babies are more likely to have low APGAR scores.

    Incidentally, can you think of any reason why moving births for non-medical reasons should improve infant health?

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  6. Lauredhel, we present the following evidence in the paper:
    – the Baby Bonus is associated with more high birthweight babies (>4kg)
    – high birthweight babies are more likely to have low APGAR scores.

    What you have failed to show is that moving these births earlier will make any difference to Apgar scores, let alone any other outcome.

    Incidentally, can you think of any reason why moving births for non-medical reasons should improve infant health?

    Most C sections and inductions in Australia are not done for compelling medical reasons. Most are, in fact, moving births for non-medical reasons, so you have the wrong end of the stick.

    I can think of reasons why delaying unnecessary interventions may improve outcomes, and I can think of reasons why delaying necessary but scheduled-unnecessarily-early interventions may improve outcomes; but for some reason you have chosen to completely ignore that possibility in your hypothesising.

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  7. “Most are, in fact, moving births for non-medical reasons”

    That might be your view, but I don’t see it as the consensus position in the medical literature. Same goes for your contention that interventions are systematically occurring earlier than necessary.

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  8. We are clearly not reading the same literature. I also know that interventions are systematically occurring earlier than necessary, because I have been there and done that, as a physician. Non urgent C sections were routinely performed at 38 weeks, up to a MONTH early, until very recently, when they have been pushed to around 39 weeks, which carries a lower but still non-zero risk of complications of iatrogenic prematurity. I have responded in more detail at your blog.

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