Parental Migration and Children’s Early Childhood Development: A Prospective Cohort Study of Chinese Children

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date



Population Research and Policy Review




China; Early childhood development; Growth curve model; Left-behind children; Parental migration


© 2021, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature B.V. part of Springer Nature. In the developing world, children are at high risk of growing up without one or both parents for extended periods of time during childhood, largely due to parental labor migration. Limited work has studied the potential impact of parental migration on early childhood development (ECD), and longitudinal data to address this question is particularly lacking. Using three waves of the China Family Panel Studies data collected in 2010, 2012 and 2014, the current study examines the association between parental migration and a number of ECD outcomes. We address the complexity and dynamic processes of family migration by categorizing patterns of parental migration during the first 5 years of children’s lives, taking into account timing and sequencing of parental migration events, as well as children’s cumulative experience with parental migration. We then associate various patterns of parental migration with the trajectories of childhood linear growth, childhood illness and home environment from age 1 to age 5, and with pre-primary school enrollment, social behavioral development, and cognitive stimulation measured at age 4 or 5. Our findings indicate that parental migration, regardless of the number of absent parents, was not associated with childhood illness, behavior, or preschool enrollment. We observe a negative association between parental migration and both cognitive stimulation and the quality of the home environment. The strength of the associations is stronger when migration involved two parents. Children of returned migrants exhibit a slower rate of linear growth, on average. The results are largely insensitive to the timing of parental migration. The implications of lower levels of cognitive stimulation and quality of the home environment on left-behind children’s cognitive development deserve further investigation.