Parents who constantly argue could be stunting their children's growth, say scientists who have uncovered a link between a reduced growth rate and a stressful upbringing.

The study showed traumatic childhood experiences have a serious effect on later health, causing disease and, in some cases, permanent stunting.

Epidemiologist Dr Scott Montgomery and his team at the Royal Free Hospital in London followed up a survey of 1,352 families across the UK which had taken place between 1937 and 1939. It had looked at children's health and lifestyles when they were aged between five and eight. Sixty years later, 149 members of the same group were tracked down and similar tests carried out.

Dr Montgomery said: "We discovered a significant relationship between parents who had argued and a slower growth rate in their children.

"Youngsters who live in very stressful situations have been found to have less growth hormone. If they are taken out of that unhappy situation, the hormone levels recover.

Such young people do not necessarily turn into short adults - they just grow more slowly. The danger is that if the stress goes on for long, it can stunt growth permanently."

His work shows that youngsters who grow more slowly are more likely to suffer high blood pressure as adults, putting them at greater risk of heart disease and strokes. "I believe this research emphasises the critical importance of looking after a child's emotional welfare," said Dr Montgomery. He believes the reason for the link between stress and growth can be put down to evolution.

"At a time of stress, it makes sense in an evolutionary way to switch off everything that isn't essential," he said. "You don't want to put your energy into growing when you might need it to run away or defend yourself. Once you are out of danger, you can afford to use your energy on growing again."

* Children with fathers in their lives, however, learn more thoroughly, have higher self-esteem and show fewer signs of depression than those reared only by their mothers, according to another study on child development, adds Cherry Norton.

The findings presented at a conference in Boston, Massachusetts yesterday, showed that children with a father or father figure scored higher on basic learning-skill tests and were more socially adept and likely to get on better with their peers.

Children who viewed their father figure as supportive had a greater feeling of competence and greater social acceptance.

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