Children born into smaller families in the world’s poorest countries may live for three years longer than those born into larger families, a new study has claimed.
Researchers showed that while family planning programmes have sometimes been pitched as ways to moderate population growth and minimise pressure on resource-strapped nations, they have real health impacts on individuals.
“Our new research shows that being born into a small family has health benefits that last throughout the course of your entire life,” said Dr Saifuddin Ahmed from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the US.
Researchers found that in families considered small (with four or fewer children), children have a life expectancy that is three years longer than children in larger families (with five or more children).
“This finding is profound because life expectancy is like the motherhood of all indicators because it encompasses health, economic and social well-being,” said Jose Rimon, Director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Institute for Family and Reproductive Health.
The findings are based on the results of the most recent national Demographic and Health Surveys from 35 developing countries. Small family size, primarily achieved through the use of contraception, reduces the competition of siblings for both the attention and micronutrients provided by the mother, and also allows the family’s often-limited financial resources to be spread farther, researchers said.
This appears to provide a positive healthy developmental environment that reduces mortality in the short- and long-term, they concluded.
“When births are spread out and mothers can provide more time to each child before the next one is born, it results in better cognitive development and health status while growing up,” said Dr Ahmed.
“Each child competes with the next for the parents’ income, food and housing and having fewer children gives everyone a larger slice of the pie,” he added. There may also be a smaller risk of exposure to life-threatening diarrhoea when there are fewer siblings around to catch and spread it, he said.