Working mums have the unhealthiest children, research finds

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Children brought up by mothers who work are less healthy and more likely to have poor dietary habits and a more sedentary lifestyle, research suggests.

Mothers in full-time work, including those who work flexible hours, were found to have children who eat too few portions of fruit and vegetables, watch more television and consume more fizzy drinks than the children of mothers who stay at home.

The research, published today in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, involved more than 12,000 British schoolchildren born between 2000 and 2002 who are part of the Millennium Cohort Study. Trends being explored include the rise in childhood obesity and policies that have encouraged women to return to work.

Researchers questioned mothers about the hours they worked and their children’s diet, exercise and activity levels when the youngsters were aged 5. They also asked how long their childdren spent in front of a TV or computer. About 30 per cent (4,030) of the mothers had not worked since giving birth but the rest (8,546) were employed. On average they worked 21 hours per week and for 45 months.

Catherine Law, of the Centre for Paediatric Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the Institute of Child Health, University College London, told The Times the analysis showed that mothers who worked full-time had the unhealthiest children, followed by those who worked part-time.

Making use of flexible working arrangements while in full-time employment did not appear to improve a child’s habits, she added. “We have seen the rising rates of childhood obesity and the rise in initiatives to get women back to work, and that is what this research explores,” Professor Law said.

The latest research backs findings from 2007 in the Millennium Cohort Study suggesting a possible link between parental working habits and child health — suggesting that children at the age of 3 were more likely to be overweight if their mothers worked. Both studies took into account factors that might influence the results, such as socioeconomic background, single-parent families and household income.

Researchers on the latest paper concluded that with approximately 60 per cent of British women with a child aged 5 or younger in employment, more support was needed. “For many families the only parent or both parents are working. This may limit parents’ capacity to provide their children with healthy foods and opportunities for physical activity,” they said. “Policies and programmes are needed to help support parents.” and create a health-promoting environment.”

Professor Law said that while the work did not prove a causative link between maternal work and child health, it showed a definitive association which needed to be considered by policymakers.

She said that factors requiring further investigation included the quality of childcare, such as agency standards and care provided by grandparents or other relatives.

Other areas for investigation included whether the link was associated with children’s habits while the mother was at work, or whether it might be a consequence of the time pressures on parents’ when back in the home, she added.

She said: “Many working mums will recognise the challenges [identified in the study]. Every mother wants to ensure the best for their children and going to work may help that.

“This is not a single factor, but it does appear to contribute. What policymakers need to understand is that what might be a solution to some issues may create others. There are upsides and downsides.” continues here

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