How does childhood socioeconomic hardship affect reproductive strategy? Pathways of development

Am J Hum Biol. 2016 May;28(3):356-63. doi: 10.1002/ajhb.22793. Epub 2015 Sep 26.


Objectives: In high-income populations, evidence suggests that socioeconomic disadvantage early in life is correlated with reproductive strategy. Children growing up in unfavorable rearing environments tend to experience earlier sexual maturity and first births. Earlier first births may be associated with higher fertility, but links between socioeconomic disadvantage and larger family size have rarely been tested. The pathways through which early disadvantage influences reproduction are unknown. We test whether physiological factors link childhood adversity to age at first birth and total children.

Methods: Using data from the Newcastle Thousand Families Study, a 1947 British birth cohort, we developed path models to identify possible physiological traits linking childhood socioeconomic status, and poor housing standards, to two reproductive outcomes: age at first birth and total children. We explored birth weight, weight gain after birth, childhood illnesses, body mass index at age 9, age at menarche, and adult height as possible mediators.

Results: We found direct, negative effects of socioeconomic status (SES) and housing on age at first birth, and of housing on fertility. Although we found links between childhood disadvantage and menarche and height, neither of these were significantly correlated with either reproductive outcome. Age at first birth completely mediates the relationship between childhood adversity and total fertility, which we believe has not been empirically demonstrated before.

Conclusions: While there are some links between childhood adversity and child health, we find little evidence that physiological pathways, such as child health and growth, link early childhood adversity to reproductive outcomes in this relatively well-nourished population. Am. J. Hum. Biol. 28:356-363, 2016. © 2015 The Authors American Journal of Human Biology Published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cohort Studies
  • England
  • Family Characteristics*
  • Female
  • Fertility
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Parturition
  • Reproduction*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Social Class
  • Socioeconomic Factors*
  • Young Adult