The wellbeing and lifecourse trajectories of only children

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Using data from the 1958 National Child Development Study (NCDS), the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70), the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), and the 1946 National Survey for Health and Development, this project aims to investigate the consequences of growing up without siblings, particularly longer-term wellbeing and life chances.

Research details

Project title

The wellbeing and lifecourse trajectories of only children

Project lead

Alice Goisis


Child development
Employment, income and wealth
Family and social networks
Health behaviour
Mental health and wellbeing
Physical health


February 2019 – July 2021




Despite fertility decline across advanced economies over the last few decades and the increasing numbers of one-child families, little is known about the consequences of growing up without siblings. Previous research suggests that despite strong stereotypes of only children, on average, singletons do as well as children with few siblings, and better than children from large families. But since existing evidence largely comes from US research conducted during or before the 1980s, it is unclear whether it reflects current or past patterns in the UK as the selection process into only children families might vary over time and across geographical contexts. Moreover, little is known about the longer-term wellbeing of only children, and whether/how growing up without siblings might affect their life chances.

To address these gaps in knowledge, this project will analyse the effects of being an only child on both childhood and adulthood outcomes in the UK over time. Using rich data from the 1946 Medical Research Council (MRC) National Survey of Health and Development (NSHD), the 1958 National Child Development Study (NCDS), the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70) and the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), the project aims to analyse the socio-demographic characteristics of only children families, compare the socio-demographic outcomes and (physical/mental) wellbeing of only children relative to the wellbeing of children growing up with siblings over time in both childhood as well as adulthood.


Working papers

Having a sibling is like a treasure? Care for ageing parents by adult children with and without siblings – CLS working paper 2021/1

Author: Jenny Chanfreau and Alice Goisis

While adult children with siblings can share caring for older parents, adult only children face this responsibility alone. Yet, despite the extensive literature on informal caregiving more generally, research on only children’s parent-care is limited. Given increased longevity and reliance on informal caregiving, as well as an increase in one-child families, there is a need to further investigate only children’s caregiving.  This paper investigates whether and how adult only children’s parent-care differs from those with siblings, how sibling composition intersects with gender and how it relates to wellbeing. Using data from three large scale British birth cohorts we analyse parent-care at different ages: 38 and 42 (born 1970), 50 and 55 (born 1958), and 63 (born 1946). Results show that only children are more likely to provide parent-care, with differences greater at later ages. Provision is gendered, and the sibling group composition matters for involvement. While caring is related to wellbeing, we found no evidence that this differs between only children and those with siblings.



Alice Goisis Associate Professor in Demography

Phone: 020 3108 9868

Alice is a family demographer whose research interests span a number of substantive areas in social demography and epidemiology such as the consequence of childbearing postponement on child well-being and the social determinants of health.

Alice is PI on two projects: a European Research Council Starting Grant to study the effects of Medically Assisted Reproduction on children, adults and parents and an ESRC New Investigator Grant to study only children in the UK.

Areas of expertise: family demography; child well-being; medically assisted reproduction; parental age.

Jenny Chanfreau Research Fellow in Demography

Phone: 020 7331 5229

Jenny works on an ESRC-funded project that focuses on the characteristics, circumstances and outcomes of ‘only children’ over the life course, involving analysis of four UK birth cohorts. Jenny’s main areas of research interest include gender, family demography and inequalities in paid and unpaid work over the life-course.

Jenny holds a PhD from the Department of Gender Studies at the London School of Economics and an MSc in social policy research, also from the LSE. Prior to her PhD, Jenny worked as a researcher at NatCen Social Research.

Relevant studies

Contact us

Centre for Longitudinal Studies
UCL Social Research Institute

20 Bedford Way
London WC1H 0AL