The public health implications of maternal care trade-offs

A. Magdalena Hurtado, Carol A. Lambourne, Kim R. Hill, Karen Kessler

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


The socioeconomic and ethnic characteristics of parents are some of the most important correlates of adverse health outcomes in childhood. However, the relationships between ethnic, economic, and behavioral factors and the health outcomes responsible for this pervasive finding have not been specified in child health epidemiology. The general objective of this paper is to propose a theoretical approach to the study of maternal behaviors and child health in diverse ethnic and socioeconomic environments. The specific aims are: (a) to describe a causal pathway between the utility that women obtain through work outside the home and through child care and disease hazard rates in childhood using an optimization model; (b) to specify the influence of ethnic and socioeconomic factors on model constraints; (c) to use the model as a tool to learn about how different combinations of maternal wage labor and child care time might influence child health outcomes in diverse social contexts; (d) to identify parameters that will require measurement in future research; (e) to discuss research strategies that will enable us to obtain these measurements; and (/) to discuss the implications of the model for biostatistical modeling and public health intervention. Optimization models are powerful heuristic tools for understanding how ethnic, environmental, family, and personal characteristics can place important constraints on both the quality and quantity of care that women can provide to their children. They provide a quantitative appreciation for the difficult trade-offs that most women face between working in order to purchase basic goods that children cannot do without (e.g., food, clothing, shelter, health insurance), and increasing offspring well-being through child care (e.g., training in social skills, affection, protection from environmental hazards, help with homework).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)129-154
Number of pages26
JournalHuman Nature
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2006
Externally publishedYes


  • Child health
  • Maternal work
  • Optimization model
  • Trade-offs

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science


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