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Member Research and Reports

UNC: When Chinese Parents Have to Migrate for Work, What Happens to the Children Left Behind?

Over the last several decades in China, millions of rural residents have migrated to urban areas for work. As parents migrate, they’ve left their young children behind with other family members in the countryside.

A new study co-led by Dr. Sean Y. Sylvia, assistant professor of health policy and management at  the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health and faculty fellow at the Carolina Population Center, evaluates the effects of maternal migration on early childhood development outcomes. The results, published online March 12 by Demography, found that mothers leaving before children reach 30 months of age may cause delayed cognitive development and lower nutritional status for children in rural China.

“This rural-urban migration is a key process that helps to drive economic growth,” says Dr. Sylvia. “Our findings suggest that when there are policies or other barriers that prevent families from staying together during the migration process, there are not only immediate costs due to separation but also potentially substantial longer-term costs due to children not reaching their potential.”

As of 2010, there were approximately 61 million “left-behind” children in China, 11.7 million of whom were under the age of two. After their mothers migrated, children spent less time in stimulating activities and were more likely to have reduced dietary quality.

Previous research has shown that a child’s environment during their first two years plays a critical role in their development and can have long-lasting effects into adulthood.  This is the first study to estimate the causal effects of parental migration on cognitive, psychomotor and socioemotional development during the first two years of life.

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