Does Family Structure Relate to Children’s Physical Health?
A new study based on the Millennium Cohort Study, a nationally-representative longitudinal survey of children born in 2000-2 and living in the United Kingdom, explored the association between family structure trajectories and early physical health, as opposed to more commonly reported outcomes such as cognitive development or behaviour in older children. The study was carried out by Lidia Panico (Institut national d’études démographiques, INED) and a team of academic experts from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies (University College London): Mel Bartley, Yvonne Kelly, Anne McMunn and Amanda Sacker.
This work explored whether family structure trajectories are correlated with three domains of early physical health: Respiratory health, being overweight/obesity and accidental injuries observed at the age of five. Family structure was studied both in terms of status (whether the household is comprised of parents that are married, cohabiting, or are single parenting) and (in)stability (whether households maintain their same status from the child’s birth until age five, or move from one status to another). The study focuses on identifying the possible mechanisms underlying the relationship between family structure trajectories and early health. It takes into account parental mental health and psychological distress, the quality of the relationship between the parents, the parent-child relationship, the children’s physical environment, exposure to tobacco including maternal smoking during pregnancy, breastfeeding, dietary habits and daily screen use, among others.
Results show that marital status, trajectory stability and transitions cannot be considered separately when analysing the role of family structure on children’s wellbeing. These components are distinctively important and appear to work together in shaping a child’s health. Second, results indicate that factors contributing to the health status of children tend to correlate more with their socio-economic background rather than the family structure per se.
Third, it suggests that specific family trajectories have specific vulnerabilities to ensure good health to their children. For example, the always-cohabiting group appears to be particularly marked by poor housing: They are more likely to live in overcrowded homes or in neighbourhoods they do not feel safe in. Another example is households that experience separation: Single parents tend to face more challenges in maintaining regular routines for their children, such as regular meal times. This study suggests that, for this trajectory, difficulties in maintaining a child’s routine might potentially mediate part of the correlation to poor early health.
Finally, 'family stress' variables (such as parental mental health) emerged as an important potential pathway to understand differentials across all domains of early health and for most family structure trajectories. These variables are not often considered when dealing with childhood physical health, yet it is plausible that young children’s main source of stress might come from their home environment, triggering inflammatory responses that could lead to poor health.
Overall, these results highlight the need to consider family processes holistically when studying children’s wellbeing, including their physical health.