Reproductive traits following a parent-child separation trauma during childhood: a natural experiment during World War II

Am J Hum Biol. May-Jun 2008;20(3):345-51. doi: 10.1002/ajhb.20735.


Given the ethical limitations of exposing children to experimentally manipulated adverse experiences, evidence of the effects of childhood traumas on subsequent life history are based mostly on women's retrospective reports and animal studies. Only a few prospective studies have assessed the life-long consequences of childhood trauma. We asked whether a traumatic separation from both parents during childhood is associated with reproductive and marital traits later in life, measured by age of onset of menarche, timing of menopause, period of fertile years, age at first childbirth, birth spacing, number of children, and history of divorce. We studied members of the 1934-1944 Helsinki Birth Cohort, including 396 former war evacuees from varying socioeconomic backgrounds, who were sent unaccompanied by their parents to temporary foster families in Sweden and Denmark, and 503 participants who had no separation experiences. Data on separation experiences, number of children, and divorces experienced came from national registers, and the remaining data from a survey among the participants aged 61.6 years (SD = 2.9). Former evacuees had earlier menarche, earlier first childbirth (men), more children by late adulthood (women), and shorter interbirth intervals (men), than the non-separated. A traumatic experience in childhood is associated with significant alterations in reproductive and marital traits, which characterize both women and men. The implications are relevant to the 9.2 million child refugees living throughout the world today.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Anxiety, Separation / epidemiology*
  • Anxiety, Separation / psychology
  • Data Collection
  • Denmark
  • Family Characteristics
  • Female
  • Finland
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Marriage / statistics & numerical data*
  • Menopause
  • Middle Aged
  • Parent-Child Relations*
  • Pilot Projects
  • Reproductive Behavior / statistics & numerical data*
  • Social Behavior*
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*
  • Sweden
  • World War II*
  • Wounds and Injuries / psychology*