Having an infant in poor health decreases the chances a couple living together 12 to 18 months later

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A study of mainly unwed, U.S. urban parents finds that fathers of infants in poor health are less likely to be living with the child's mother following the child's first birthday than fathers of healthy children.

The study, published in the latest issue of the journal Demography, also finds that having an infant in poor health decreases the chances a couple who had been living together (either married or cohabiting) at the time of the child's birth still would be living together 12 to 18 months later.

"Within a very short period, having a child in poor health increased the likelihood the parents became less involved," reported Nancy E. Reichman, of Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, who conducted the study with Hope Corman and Kelly Noonan of both Rider University and the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The study assessed the couples' levels of involvement on a continuum of greater to lesser connection (married, cohabiting, romantically involved, just friends, or not involved).

"Our findings indicate that low-income children in poor health are at 'double jeopardy.' Not only does poverty lead to health and economic disadvantages as children age, but poor health increases the likelihood that they grow up in households without both parents, which could compound those disadvantages," said Reichman.

The findings are from the ongoing Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which interviewed about 5,000 sets of new, mostly unwed parents at hospitals in 20 U.S. cities and then again shortly after their child's first birthday.

The researchers determined that about 5 percent of the children studied were in poor health, including children born weighing less than four pounds at birth, those who had a disability such as cerebral palsy or Down syndrome, and those who appeared to have serious developmental delays.

"Our findings suggest that a child's poor health contributes to future health and economic disadvantages through family structure," she said. "Having an unhealthy child can put substantial financial and emotional burdens on some couples, reducing their capacity to maintain a relationship, and possibly, to invest in their child."

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