Possible effects of maternal migration on young children in rural China

Maternal migration before children reach 30 months of age may be associated with delayed cognitive development and lower nutritional status in children in rural China, according to a study published in the journal Demography.

London, 12th March 2020

Over the last several decades in China, rural residents have been migrating to urban areas in search of jobs, leaving children in the care of family members in their home communities. As of 2010, there were about 61 million “left-behind” children in China, 11.7 million of which were younger than two years of age. Previous research has found high rates of cognitive delay and micronutrient deficiency among young children in China’s rural areas.

A team of researchers from Chinese and US universities found that compared to children whose mothers had not migrated, those whose mothers migrated before they were 30 months old had higher odds of experiencing negative effects, including delayed cognitive development and lower dietary diversity. No significant effects were found on psychomotor development, social-emotional delay, anemia or the frequency of illness between children whose mothers had migrated and children whose mothers had not done so.

Co-author Professor Sean Sylvia said: “Rural-urban migration is a key process that helps to drive economic growth, but there are policies or other barriers that prevent families from staying together during this process. Our findings are important because they suggest that there are immediate costs due to parent-child separation and potentially substantial longer-term costs due to children not reaching their potential later in life.”

The authors found that maternal migration was associated with an 8.2 percentage point increase in the probability of cognitive delay. They also found that earlier migration (before children were 15 months old) was associated with larger and more persistent effects on cognitive development.

After mothers had migrated, children spent less time engaged in stimulating activities with caregivers, such as playing with toys or listening to caregivers singing songs. Children were also more likely to have reduced dietary diversity and consume fewer iron-rich foods. These factors may contribute to the negative effects of maternal migration on cognition, the authors suggest.

The authors used data from a survey of children and households conducted in 174 townships of 11 nationally designated poverty counties of a province in northwest China. They randomly selected two villages from each township, where they obtained a list of all registered births over the past 12 months. Following an initial survey in 2013, they conducted three follow-up surveys at six-month intervals until 2015, covering 1,834, 1,592, 1,585 and 1,490 children, respectively. Detailed information was collected on socioeconomic characteristics of the child and household, indicators of child development and health/nutrition status, and information on parenting and feeding practices.

The authors caution that the observed relationship between maternal migration and child cognitive development and nutrition may be affected by other factors, such as an illness in the family or economic hardship. They also caution that paternal migration was not accounted for in this study.

The authors stress that the findings do not necessarily warrant programs aimed solely at left-behind children, since poor development in early childhood is a widespread problem in poorer areas of China. They suggest that policymakers in China consider investing in programs to support early childhood development in rural areas.

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