Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Are Working Mothers Making Children Obese?

A recent study published in the journal Child Development suggests that children of working mothers are more likely to gain weight than children with stay-at-home mothers.  Google News is filled with headlines suggesting that working mothers are to blame for obese children, but is this actually the case?

Actually--the study never says that working mothers cause obesity in their children.  What the article does say is slightly different from that.  The researchers looked at the BMI of children in grades 3, 5, and 6 and found that for every 5.3 months a mother was employed, her child would gain 1 more pound than what is considered normal  In 6th grade, a child with a working mother was six times more likely to be overweight than their peers with stay at home mothers.  Overweight is not necessarily obese, and gaining slightly more weight than is normal does not exactly make a child overweight. The study merely correlates weight gain with having a mother that works outside the home. 

In fact, in an NPR interview with Professor Taryn Morrissey, one of the author's of the study, said, "[I] want to stress that while we found that the duration of time that mothers worked is associated with an increase in their children's body mass index, it was a very small increase."  Morrissey later added, "There are so many factors that factor into childhood obesity...I feel that a lot of the coverage on this has been extremely sensationalized...We don't know if this is causal first of all, we can do something to change it. And so we can improve access to healthy foods, we can improve information about children's sleep habits, we can help inform policies and parents and working parents, both mom and dads alike, to promote healthy weight."

The study does not find a "smoking gun" or offer an explanation of why the children of working mothers gain more weight, however it does suggest that eating meals outside of the home, having a more sedentary lifestyle and less supervision might be factors.

There were also a few flaws in the study such as a lack of diversity among the participants and the failure to include the work habits of fathers.  It is 2010, not 1950 and women and men are both working outside the home and in a lot of cases, both contribute to eating habits and lifestyle choices of their children.

So working mothers--no need to feel guilty yet, you are not causing the obesity epidemic in children, at least according to this study.


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