Birth of third child ‘does not make parents happier’

Age at which people become first-time parents also determines fulfilment, study shows

The birth of a first and second child briefly increases their parents’ level of happiness, but welcoming a third child does not.

The level of happiness experienced by parents increases in the year before and after the birth of a first child, and quickly decreases and returns to their "pre-child" level of happiness, according to new research published in the journal Demography from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and Western University in Canada.

The same happens when a second child arrives, though the increase in happiness is approximately half of that for first births. The increase in parental happiness on the arrival of a third child is negligible.

The research is based on data from the British Household Panel Survey and the German Socio-Economic Panel, and tracked parents for 18 years after the birth of their children, far longer than previous studies.


"The fact that parental happiness increases before these children are born suggests that we are capturing broader issues relating to childbearing, such as couples forming partnerships and making plans for the future," said Mikko Myrskylä, professor of demography at LSE and director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany.

“The arrival of a third child is not associated with an increase in the parents’ happiness, but this is not to suggest they are any less loved than their older siblings.

“Instead, this may reflect that the experience of parenthood is less novel and exciting by the time the third child is born or that a larger family puts extra pressure on the parents’ resources.

“Also, the likelihood of a pregnancy being unplanned may increase with the number of children a woman already has - and this brings its own stresses.”

Women gain more happiness before and immediately after the birth of a child, and thus experience steeper drops in happiness long after giving birth, possibly due to the larger initial gain in satisfaction. In the long run, there are no differences in the level of happiness between men and women before and after having children.

Older parents aged 35 to 49 also show the largest happiness gains around the time of birth and stay at a higher level of happiness after becoming parents. But those who become parents in their teens have a predominantly declining pattern of happiness that does not increase above the base level even during the year they first give birth.

"The fact that among older and better-educated parents, wellbeing increases with childbearing, but the young and less-educated parents have flat or even downward happiness trajectories, may explain why postponing fertility has become so common," said Rachel Margolis, assistant professor from Western University's Faculty of Social Science.