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Children of working mothers have unhealthier lifestyles

29 September 2009

Children whose mothers go out to work have poorer dietary habits than those whose mothers are not in paid employment, according to a new UCL study.

Fizzy drink

The children furthermore are more sedentary, and are more likely to be driven to school than children whose mothers do not work outside the home, according to research published today by Professor Catherine Law (UCL Institute of Child Health) in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

The researchers' findings are based on more than 12,500 five-year-old singleton children – those who were not part of a multiple birth – who were part of the UK Millennium Cohort Study.

The mothers reported on the hours they worked and their children’s usual dietary habits, exercise levels, and sedentary activities. Questions included how much sweets and crisps, sweetened drinks, fruits and vegetables the child consumed, whether they took part in organised exercise, and how they got to school. Mothers were also asked how long their child used a computer or TV each day.

After taking account of factors likely to influence the results, such as maternal education and socioeconomic circumstances, the findings showed that children whose mothers worked part- or full-time were more likely to drink sweetened drinks between meals than children whose mothers had never worked. These children were also more likely to spend at least two hours a day in front of the TV or at a computer, and they were more likely to be driven to school rather than walk or cycle. Children whose mothers worked full time were also less likely to snack on fruit or vegetables between meals, or to eat three or more portions of fruit a day.

Children whose mothers worked flexi-time were more likely to have healthier lifestyles, but once other influential factors had been taken into account, there was little evidence that these children engaged in healthier behaviours.

While the work patterns of fathers have changed relatively little in recent decades, those of mothers have, with around 60% of mothers with children under five in the UK and the US now going out to work, say the authors. Busy working parents may have less time to provide their children with healthy foods and opportunities for physical activity, say the authors, who cite previous research, suggesting a link between working mothers and a higher risk of obesity in their children.

“Our results do not imply that mother should not work,” says author Professor Catherine Law. “Rather, they highlight the need for policies and programmes to help support parents...to create a healthy environment for their children. They suggest that dietary guidelines for children in formal childcare, similar to those already adopted in Scotland might be applied in England, for example.”

 

UCL context

The UCL Centre for Paediatric Epidemiology and Biostatics aims to:

  • improve the health and wellbeing of children through interdisciplinary collaborative research that addresses questions central to clinical practice and to public health
  • understand the biological, genetic, developmental, environmental and social mechanisms underlying the early life origins of illness, health and wel being in childhood and adult life, and the longer term consequences of early life exposures and interventions
  • improve the scientific basis of strategies for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of diseases affecting children and the adults they will become 
  • increase research capacity through the provision of training in epidemiology, biostatistics and academic public health applied to children.

The University of London established the first UK university chair of paediatric epidemiology and the first department of paediatric epidemiology and biostatistics at the UCL Institute of Child Health in recognition of the importance of these disciplines for child health research. The centre comprises the largest critical mass of expertise in paediatric epidemiology in the UK.

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