Maternal investments in children: the role of expected effort and returns

Gaps in children’s intellectual, physical, and emotional development by family-level deprivation emerge early in childhood and tend to widen over time. It is estimated that at least half of the variation across individuals in lifetime earnings arises from attributes determined by age 18. Early childhood developmental outcomes are shaped by a combination of neurological, physiological, and environmental factors, including nutrition, stress, and the responsivity and stimulation offered by parents and other caregivers. Parents thus play a crucial role and differences in parental behaviours must be an important facet of the emergence of unequal capabilities in children.

In the commonly used analytical framework, differences in parental investments arise either from differences in financial constraints or from differences in parental preferences over child development. As it can be difficult to modify preferences, this has led to a tradition of seeking to ameliorate childhood inequalities through cash transfers. However, the evidence that untargeted income transfers to poor families boost child outcomes is ambiguous. This makes it important to consider whether there are sources of constraints on parental investments in children.

Our research highlights the relevance of two additional constraints. First, we show that parents often have limited or biased information about how important it is for their child’s development that they breastfeed or play with the child. Second, we show that making investments in young children incurs effort (not just money but time and energy) and, as a result, mothers who suffer postnatal fatigue because of depression or poverty may be less likely to invest in their newborn child.

We interviewed 1,100 pregnant women in rural and peri-urban Pakistan, asking them how tiring they expect that breastfeeding and playing will be after their child is born, and also asking what they think the chances are that the child will do better in various developmental domains if they breastfeed or play with the child. The domains we ask about include the cognitive (language and learning well at school), socio-emotional (playing with other children) and health (diarrhea, the leading cause of death among infants and children in Pakistan) domains.

In general, mothers report positive expected returns to maternal investments. They expect exclusive breastfeeding to have its highest impact on children’s health (with, on average, a 39 pp expected reduction in the likelihood that the child will experience diarrhea), while they expect play to have its highest impact on cognition (with, on average, an increase of 35 pp in the expectation that the child will learn well at school). There is, however, substantial variation in expected returns. Expected costs also vary across mothers, with around 39% of them reporting that they expect to find breastfeeding to be tiring, and 35% saying they expect that playing with the child will be tiring. More educated and more wealthy women are more likely to expect higher returns and lower effort costs. We also find that women who are depressed in pregnancy expect investing in their child to be more tiring.

Using the data to estimate a model of the mother’s decision making over whether to breastfeed and play, we find that both expected returns and expected effort costs contribute to determining how much women invest but, at least in this sample of poor women, there are no significant differences in how much they value child developmental outcomes. Using simulation techniques we find that an information policy that increases mothers’ expected returns raises both investments. Information interventions are inexpensive relative to resource interventions (like cash transfers or school construction), and issues of parental responses such as crowd-out do not arise. In a departure from previous research, we also demonstrate, for the case of play, that eliminating effort costs leads to a significant increase in stimulation. Increasing expected returns while at the same time lifting effort cost (for instance by treating maternal depression or facilitating mother networks such as playgroups) shows the strongest potential to foster maternal investments.