THE majority of young families are struggling to make ends meet.
Almost two-thirds reported that the recession has been financially crippling, according to a major study of 11,000 three-year-olds and their parents.
The Growing Up in Ireland report published today provides a snapshot of struggling families who are being hit hard by the economic downturn.
It also reveals that by the time children are three, a significant health gap has opened up which is linked to family wealth. This comes as families face the threat of more cuts to social welfare and higher taxes in next month's Budget. The number of families experiencing difficulties rose from 44pc in 2008, when the children were nine months old, to 61pc just over two years later, when their children were three.
A third of these young families had to cut back on basics as a result, one in six was behind on utility bills and one in 11 was in arrears with the rent or mortgage.
The report found that children from poorer families are almost twice as likely to be obese and less likely to enjoy perfect health than their better-off peers.
Toddlers from disadvantaged homes are already less likely to be considered "very healthy" compared with children from wealthier households.
The research for Growing Up in Ireland matches international trends and marks the earliest age at which poverty and privilege manifest in a child's wellbeing.
It shows that diet is having an impact on three-year-olds, with children from poorer families more likely to be obese and those with less-educated mothers more likely to eat burgers and crisps than fresh fruit and vegetables.
"What this report highlights is that even by three, there is evidence of an emerging gap in child outcomes relating to levels of social advantage," said Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald.
She said that while the importance of the first three years was well-documented, the new report gave a "rich description" of the family, childcare and financial circumstances the country's youngsters live in.
Three-year-olds from more socially advantaged backgrounds were more likely to be described as "very healthy" at 75pc compared with 67pc of those from less well-off families.
Those with less-educated parents were also more likely to have consumed fattening foods such as hamburgers and crisps in the previous 24 hours and were less likely to have eaten fruit and vegetables.
Overall, a quarter of Irish three-year-olds are obese or overweight, the report shows.
And while one in five children was reported to have a speech or language difficulty by their parents, only a third of these had received treatment.
Dr Aisling Murray, co-author of the report, could help the Government identify where money needs to be spent in service provision.
She said: "This will allow us to investigate further how the earliest life experiences affect child outcomes in later years.
"It underlines the very considerable potential for Growing Up in Ireland to provide input to the development of evidence-based policy and service provision aimed at children and families in Ireland."
The report reveals that while more than half of mothers work outside the home for an average of 30 hours a week, large numbers find it difficult to get the work-life balance right.
Up to three-quarters of working mums reported missing out on family activities and up to 55pc found home life was more pressured and less enjoyable as a result, with those working more than 40 hours under the most strain.
Half of three-year-olds were in some form of childcare, with a quarter in a creche or other facility, 11pc cared for by a relative and the remaining 12pc with a minder.
Some 97pc of parents planned to avail of the free preschool year for children, while two out of five families had already put their child down for a primary school. This soared to more than half of better-off parents.
Behavioural problems were less common in Irish children than in British, but were more prevalent among boys from disadvantaged homes.
Behavioural difficulties were linked to changes in parents' stress levels over the previous two years. They were more common if parents tended to be less warm and consistent, and were more hostile.
Girls performed better in tests of cognitive ability than boys, and this was also associated with how frequently the child was read to at home.
The three-year-olds were examined as part of wider research that began in 2006, involving two groups – 11,000 children who were recruited into the study aged nine months and 8,500 who were recruited at nine years of age.
The study is funded by the Department of Children and carried out by the Economic and Social Research Institute and Trinity College Dublin.
By Aideen Sheehan Consumer Affairs Correspondent