Grandparent childcare: a risk for childhood obesity?

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Grandparents are supposed to spoil their grandchildren, right? All of those extra treats and indulgences that Mom and Dad would say no to are often fair game when they’re coming from Nana or Grampy. Yet, while that may be a harmless occasional policy, when Granny and Pops are full-time childcare providers, it can be a recipe for overweight grandchildren, according to a study published in the International Journal of Obesity. The analysis of more than 12,000 British children followed from the age of nine months to three years found that, those in some sort of informal childcare—75% were with grandparents—were more likely to be overweight than those who attended formal day care or were looked after by a parent. Additionally, when the researchers incorporated socioeconomic status into the data analysis, they found that the association between informal childcare and increased risk for being overweight was limited to children from wealthier, more educated and two-parent households.

Children whose grandparents served as full time childcare givers were 34% more likely than their peers to be overweight, and those whose grandparents looked after them part-time were 15% more likely to be overweight. While the study didn’t tackle why grandparent childcare might increase the risk for obesity, the authors speculate that it’s down to, well, spoiling the grandkids. As Catherine Law, lead author of the study, told Emma Wilkinson of the BBC, overindulgence and lack of exercise are likely culprits. To tackle that problem, Law suggests further research and education:

“One of the ways forward would be to talk to small groups of grandparents to see the challenges they face. Some of the things that might help would be educating the population in general about healthy lifestyles but also things like avoiding food as a reward and suggestions for building activities into daily life.”

In the U.K., where nearly one quarter of preschoolers are overweight or obese, according to the BBC, a government compensation plan may offer an opportunity for education and intervention. Last spring, the British government announced that, as of April 2011, grandparents who care for young grandchildren for more than 20 hours per week will begin receiving health insurance credits.

In the U.S., childhood obesity has tripled in the last three decades and nearly one fifth of 6 to 11-year-olds are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And, in addition to public health initiatives and childhood obesity education efforts, making sure that grandparents’ adoring and well-meaning efforts don’t put their grandchildren at risk for the health problems associated with obesity may come down to a hard conversation—between mom and dad, and their own parents.