Approaches for drawing causal inferences from epidemiological birth cohorts: a review

Early Hum Dev. 2014 Nov;90(11):769-80. doi: 10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2014.08.023. Epub 2014 Sep 26.


Large-scale population-based birth cohorts, which recruit women during pregnancy or at birth and follow up their offspring through infancy and into childhood and adolescence, provide the opportunity to monitor and model early life exposures in relation to developmental characteristics and later life outcomes. However, due to confounding and other limitations, identification of causal risk factors has proved challenging and published findings are often not reproducible. A suite of methods has been developed in recent years to minimise problems afflicting observational epidemiology, to strengthen causal inference and to provide greater insights into modifiable intra-uterine and early life risk factors. The aim of this review is to describe these causal inference methods and to suggest how they may be applied in the context of birth cohorts and extended along with the development of birth cohort consortia and expansion of "omic" technologies.

Keywords: Birth cohort; Causal inference; Consortia; DOHaD; Epidemiology; Epigenetics; Life course; Metabolomics; Omics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Birth Rate
  • Causality
  • Cohort Studies*
  • Epigenomics / methods
  • Metabolomics / methods
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic*