Breathing Easy with Both Parents—And Lots of Siblings

Epidemiologists have long understood that an intact family shields children from poor health. However, a team of Canadian researchers found themselves highly puzzled when they not only confirmed that children are healthier when living with both parents but also established that these children are usually freer from illness when living in a home with a large number of siblings. Both findings appear—unexpectedly paired—in a study published by scholars from the University of Calgary.

Based on data collected for 102,353 children ages 0 to 17 years in 2003, the study examines the relationships between children’s health and their social circumstances. As the researchers expected, children in intact families enjoy some significant health advantages. When the authors take children in intact families as their basis of comparison, they find that “those in a stepparent family were more likely to have asthma (Odds Ratio [OR]: 1.19). They also find that, “compared with children from households with two biological parents, children in single mother-only families were significantly more likely to have asthma (OR = 1.23) or migraines/severe headaches (OR = 1.24).” In line with a good deal of other research, these findings were largely unremarkable.

What the Canadian team finds perplexing is their finding that “having a greater number of children in the household appears to decrease the likelihood of a child having a poor health outcome; while in contrast, having a personal health care professional appears to increase the likelihood of poor health being reported.” (Having lots of brothers and sisters does more to protect good health than does having a doctor?) The researchers admit that “the resource dilution hypothesis” makes the relationship between family size and children’s health seem “counter-intuitive.” But they reason that perhaps something other than “resource dilution” may be at work, citing “studies [that] have shown that having many children in a household has protective effects on the development of respiratory infections (via the ‘hygiene hypothesis’).”

Whatever the theoretical explanation, this study suggests that the healthiest place for a child may well be in the intact, child-rich family.

(Source: Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson, “New Research,” The Family in America, Summer 2010, Vol. 24 Number 3. Study: Charlemagne C. Victorino and Anne H. Gauthier, “The Social Determinants of Child Health: Variations Across Health Outcomes: A Population-Based Cross-Sectional Analysis,” BioMed Central Pediatrics 9:53, August 17, 2009.)

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