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Why Are Indian Children So Short? The Role of Birth Order and Son Preference (WP-15-20)

Seema Jayachandran and Rohini Pande

Stunting due to malnutrition is widespread in India, such that Indian children are shorter than their counterparts in poorer regions like Sub-Saharan Africa. Using data on over 174,000 children from demographic and health surveys, the researchers show that Indian firstborns are actually taller than African firstborns, and that the Indian height disadvantage emerges with the second child and then increases with birth order. India's steep birth order gradient persists when the researchers compare siblings. Several factors suggest that the culture of eldest son preference underlies India's high rate of stunting: The Indian firstborn height advantage only exists for sons, and the drop-off varies with siblings' gender—as well as by religion and region within India—in ways consistent with the hope for a male heir determining Indian parents' fertility decisions and their allocation of resources among their children.

Seema Jayachandran, Associate Professor of Economics and Faculty Associate, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

Rohini Pande, Mohammed Kamal Professor of Public Policy, Harvard University

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