Family Matters

Are Working Moms to Blame for Childhood Obesity?

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Moms, prepare to feel guilty, but only just slightly: There’s new data out there that link the more years you spend in the workforce with chubbier children.Researchers looked at body-mass index (BMI), which is a measure of weight-for-height, and found that the more years a woman spends at work after her child’s birth, the more that child’s BMI rises, according to research in the January/February issue of the journal Child Development. The increases, though statistically significant, were hardly jaw-dropping. In third grade, for example, the excess weight amounted to just one pound. (More on Time.comYawn. Working Moms Awake More Than Dads to Care for Kids at Night)

In the past 30 years, childhood obesity has tripled. Couple that with the stat that 70% of U.S. mothers with young children work, and it’s not unreasonable to be concerned. Of course, there are many factors that contribute to childhood obesity, including easy access to cheap, prepared foods and kids’ increasing preference for apps over exercise. Taryn Morrissey, an assistant professor in public administration and policy at American University who led the study, emphasizes that her findings are not meant to alarm mothers or make them feel bad about being gainfully employed.

“This is by no means bashing working moms,” says Morrissey. “It is a small effect. It’s not maternal employment per se that appears to be the reason for childhood obesity. No one has found a single smoking gun as the cause of childhood obesity, and our study is certainly no exception.”

Researchers at American University, Cornell University and the University of Chicago looked at 900 children in grades 3, 5, and 6 in 10 U.S. cities. They identified a small but cumulative effect on children’s BMI that could lead to children becoming overweight. The researchers looked at the total time that moms worked over the course of a child’s life from birth to 6th grade. The differences were cumulative and most noticeable as children got older, particularly by the time they entered middle school. (More on Time.comThe Latest Figures on American Motherhood)

The researchers considered factors including physical activity, time spent watching television or involved in structured activities, maternal depression, unsupervised time and time spent with parents; none of those factors explained the association. Perhaps, suggest the researchers, working parents find it harder to make time to cook healthy meals and fall back on caloric fast food or prepared foods.

So what’s there to do? Morrissey offers several suggestions:

-Learn how to make nutritious meals and do it quickly (please, dear readers, if you figure that one out, clue me in).

-Have regular family mealtimes as often as possible. Extracurriculars make that impossible every night, but set aside at least one evening when there’s nothing on the schedule aside from the family dinner.

-Make sure your child is getting enough sleep (9 to 10 hours for kids ages 5 to 8) as studies have shown inadequate, irregular sleep promotes packing on the pounds. (More on You Snooze, You Lose: More Weekend Sleep Cuts Kids’ Obesity Risk)

-Consider what foods are served at your children’s structured activities, including school and after-school activities.

And relax. Not that you were tempted to hand in your resignation after reading this, but you can rest assured, as Morrissey puts it, “If all moms were to leave the workforce tomorrow, it wouldn’t solve childhood obesity.”