Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Mothers’ education and children’s health

Educational reforms in Turkey 20 years ago led to a significant improvement in the attainment of young men and women. This column reports research indicating that the children of women who were required to extend their time at school from five to eight years are healthier at birth and less likely to die by the age of five.

In a nutshell

Raising the number of years of mandatory schooling in developing countries not only boosts the resources devoted to educating girls, but it can also have a big impact in improving children’s health.

Women in Turkey who benefited from extended schooling gave birth to healthier children.

These mothers have also made changes in their behaviour that may improve their children’s health.

In 1997, the Turkish government enacted an educational reform that raised the number of years of required schooling from five to eight. The mandate of the law caused a large jump in educational attainment for those who were affected by it. A distinguishing feature of the reform was that it mainly increased the schooling of boys and girls from families with considerable reservations about children’s education, especially that of girls.

Achieving universal primary schooling has not only been strongly advocated but also prescribed as a remedy to improve public health in developing societies, such as reducing low birth weight and child mortality. Yet our understanding of the causal link between maternal mandatory education and children’s wellbeing in developing countries is limited. The scarcity of suitable natural experiments and data limitations are the key reasons behind the current state of research evidence.

To address this shortcoming, our research explores the relationship between maternal education and children’s health using two large data sets from Turkey. The 1997 education reform enables us to tease out the causal link from maternal education to children’s outcomes by allowing us to compare the outcomes of children born to mothers with similar characteristics but contrasting educational experiences.

We compare slightly older women who were not affected by the reform with those born a few years later who were affected by it. After accounting for trends in the outcomes of mothers specific to the two birth cohorts (such as their children’s health), the difference in educational attainment seems to be the only systematic difference between the two groups.

We find that women who experienced at least eight years of schooling (as opposed to at least five years) give birth to healthier children. Specifically, our estimates imply that an increase of at least one year in maternal education lowers the likelihood of very low birth weight (under 1500 grams), low birth weight (under 2500 grams) and premature birth (gestation of under 37 weeks) by about 0.53, 0.83 and 0.6 percentage points, respectively.

Consistent with this finding, women whose schooling was extended by at least a year are 0.6 percentage points less likely to have had a child who died by the age of five.

Further analysis reveals that mothers with extended schooling also made changes in their behaviour that may improve their children’s health. For example, mothers who earned at least a middle school diploma are less likely to smoke and more likely to deliver their babies via normal birth.

These findings have straightforward implications. In addition to increasing the resources devoted to the education of girls in developing countries, effective implementation of the laws on mandatory schooling may have a big impact in improving children’s health.

Further reading

Dursun, Bahadir, Resul Cesur and Inas Rashad Kelly (2017) ‘The Value of Mandating Maternal Education in a Developing Country’, National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) Working Paper No. w23492.

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