• Alaka BasuAlaka Basu
      Alaka M. Basu is Professor, Development Sociology, Cornell University, and a member of the Guttmacher-Lancet Commission on Sexual and Reproductive Rights and Health
      Alessandro RosinaAlessandro Rosina
      Professor of Demography and Director, Center for Applied Statistics in Business and Economics, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore
      Andrea BrandoliniAndrea Brandolini
      Head of Statistical Analysis Directorate, Bank of Italy
      Bruno MasquelierBruno Masquelier
      Professor of Demography, University of Louvain, Belgium
      Cheikh MbackéCheikh Mbacké
      Associate Professor, Sociology department, Laval University
      Cinzia ContiCinzia Conti
      Researcher at Istat, Head of Unit on Foreign Presence and Social Dynamics
      Corrado BonifaziCorrado Bonifazi
      Director of the Institute for Research on Population and Social Policies, National Research Council, Rome Italy
      Ernestina CoastErnestina Coast
      Associate Professor of Population Studies, London School of Economics
      Wang FengFeng Wang
      Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine, USA, and Professor at Fudan University, Shanghai, China fwang(at)
      Francesco BillariFrancesco Billari
      Professor of Sociology and Demography, University of Oxford
      Gilles PisonGilles Pison
      Professor at Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle and Director of Research at the French National Institute for Demographic Studies (INED) (Paris)
      Gustavo De SantisGustavo De Santis
      Professor of Demography, University of Florence, Italy
      Jacques VallinJacques Vallin
      Emeritus Research Director at INED, Paris; Honorary President of IUSSP
      John KnodelJohn Knodel
      Research Professor Emeritus, Population Studies Center, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan (USA) and International staff, College of Populations Studies, Chulalongkorn University (Thailand)
      Letizia MencariniLetizia Mencarini
      Associate professor of Demography, Bocconi University - Dondena Centre for Research on Social Dynamics and Public Policy & Collegio Carlo Alberto; P.I. ERC P.I. ERC project n. 313617 (2013-2018) SWELLFER
      Letizia TanturriLetizia Tanturri
      Associate Professor of Demography, University of Padova, Italy
      Massimo livi BacciMassimo livi Bacci
      Emeritus Professor of Demography, University of Florence, Italy
      Monica Das GuptaMonica Das Gupta
      Research Professor of Sociology, University of Maryland, USA
      Paula Miranda-RibeiroPaula Miranda-Ribeiro
      Professor, Demography Department and Cedeplar, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Brazil.
      Peter McDonaldPeter McDonald
      Professor of Demography in the Australian National University. Honorary President of IUSSP and winner of the Irene B. Taeuber Award
      Roberto ImpicciatoreRoberto Impicciatore
      Università di Bologna.
      Salvatore StrozzaSalvatore Strozza
      Professor of Demography, University Federico II, Naples (Italy)
      Stefano MolinaStefano Molina
      Senior Program Officer, Giovanni Agnelli Foundation, Italy
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    • N-IUSSP is a new IUSSP news magazine, which will disseminate scientific findings from demographic research carried out all over the world. The practical implications of current trends, the risks and potentialities of emerging situations, the pros and cons of specific laws are discussed in rigorous but plain language.

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Children born to a lone mother and their well-being in the UK
Le bien-être des enfants de mères célibataires au Royaume-Uni

Elena Mariani, Alice Goisis
lone mother with his children

Numerous studies have looked at the relationship between family structure and child well-being. Overall, the evidence suggests that children who grow up in a household with two married biological parents, on average, do better than those growing up with a single mother (Bernardi and Boertien 2017; Sigle-Rushton and McLanahan 2014; McLanahan et al. 2013). However, existing studies have not considered whether the diverse family trajectories experienced by children born to single mothers may result in different levels of well-being.

Father’s absence, presence and child well-being

Using data from the UK Millennium Cohort Study (Hansen 2012), we investigate whether subsequent changes in household structure of children born to lone mothers (about 14.7% of all births) are associated with their well-being when they are seven years old (Mariani, Özcan and Goisis 2017). We identified the four most common family paths experienced by these children:

a) children who lived continuously with a single mother until age seven (5.4% of the analytical sample considered in the analysis),

b) children who experienced their biological father moving in and forming a stable union with their mother (3.4%),

c) children who experienced their biological father moving in and then out again by the age of seven (1.2%), and

d) children whose mothers form a stable union with a stepfather (1.5%).

The remaining 3.2% of children born to lone mothers did not enter the analytical sample due to either unclassifiable trajectories, missing variables or attrition. Note that we did not consider the timing of the transition, which may have happened at any time during the 7 years after the child’s birth, and we grouped cohabitation and marriage together. Using this taxonomy, we analysed the influence on child well-being of the biological father or a stepfather joining the household, and that of separations, if any.

We considered three domains of child well-being: health, cognitive development and socio-emotional well-being. Changes in family structure may affect these domains in various ways. For instance, when a partner for the lone mother joins the family he may bring more resources and become involved with the care of the child, which could be associated with higher well-being in all domains, even if the involvement of stepfathers may be lower than that of biological fathers (Ginther and Pollak 2004). Moreover, if the union subsequently splits up (again), this may create additional stress for the children, with possible negative consequences on their well-being (Cavanagh and Huston 2006).

Who are the children born to lone mothers?

Mothers who were not living with the child’s biological father at the time of birth belonged to a particularly disadvantaged subpopulation group. For example, equivalised household income is much lower in the case of single mothers than in the case of married couples (about a third); over 50% of single mothers lived in social housing, compared with about 10% of married couples and less than 15% of single mothers had a university degree, compared with over 40% of married women. However, the results revealed important heterogeneity: mothers who were continuously single for seven years after the birth of the child were the most financially disadvantaged, those who moved back with the biological father were the least disadvantaged and the other groups fell in between.

The association between family trajectories and child well-being

Figure 1 shows for each outcome the regression coefficients of the various family trajectories in relative terms, the standard of reference being that of children who lived stably with a single mother from birth.

Schermata 2017-09-24 alle 16.50.29

Children whose biological father joined the household after their birth had better cognitive skills and were less likely to develop depressive symptoms than children who only lived with their single mothers. Conversely, the arrival of a stepfather in the family was not associated with improvement on any of the outcomes (and was instead associated with a marked worsening of cognitive verbal skills). This finding suggests that the benefits of improved resources and parenting input may be cancelled out by the difficulties in adjusting to a new situation in the child’s home environment when a stepfather joins the family. Finally, if the biological father who moved in after the birth of the child later moved out of the household, we also find no improvement in the cognitive and socio-emotional well-being of children compared to children who only lived with their single mother. These results highlight the importance of stability of the home environment: the benefits of a father’s entry for children’s outcomes in different areas are clearest if the father is biological and the union is stable (i.e., persists at least until the 7th birthday).


This study underscores the diversity of family experiences from birth to age seven of children born to lone mothers. Children living with a lone mother are a subpopulation targeted by social policies in virtually all Western countries. Our results show the merit in distinguishing between different groups of children born to lone mothers, according to the family trajectories they experience in early childhood, which might be associated with different types of disadvantages and need for interventions.


Bernardi F., Boertien D. (2017) Does parental separation increase inequality of educational opportunity?, N-IUSSP,

Cavanagh S.E., Huston A.C. (2006). Family instability and children’s early problem behavior. Social Forces, 85(1), 551–581.

Hansen K. (2012). Millennium cohort study—First, second, third and fourth surveys—A guide to the datasets. Technical report, Centre for Longitudinal Studies.

Ginther D.K., Pollak R.A. (2004). Family structure and children’s educational outcomes: Blended families, stylized facts, and descriptive regressions. Demography, 41(4), 671–696.

Mariani E., Özcan B., Goisis A. (2017). Family trajectories and well-being of children born to lone mothers in the UK. European Journal of Population33(2), 185-215.

McLanahan S., Tach L., Schneider D. (2013). The causal effects of father absence. Annual Review of Sociology, 399, 399–427.

Sigle-Rushton W., McLanahan S. (2004). Father absence and child wellbeing: A critical review. In D. Moynihan, L. Rainwater, T. Smeeding (Eds.), The future of the family (pp. 116–155). New York: Russell Sage.





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