Research published ahead of print in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health reports that children of working mothers are likely to lead unhealthier lifestyles than those whose mothers do not work.

The study suggests they are more sedentary and are more likely to be driven to school.

The research was based on more than 12,500 five year old singleton children who were part of the UK Millennium Cohort Study.

A questionnaire was handed out to the mothers about the hours they worked and their children's diet, exercise levels, and sedentary activities.

The survey incorporated how much of sweets and crisps, sugary drinks, fruits and vegetables the child consumed. It also included questions on whether they took part in organized exercise and how they got to school.

In addition, mothers were asked how long their child spent in front of a TV or computer each day.

Factors likely to influence the results, such as maternal education and socioeconomic circumstances were taken into account. Results indicated that children whose mothers worked part, or full time, were more likely to mostly consume sugary drinks between meals than kids whose mothers had never worked.

Furthermore, these children were more likely to spend at least two hours a day in front of the TV or at a computer. They were also more likely to be driven to school rather than walk or cycle.

Children whose mothers worked full time were also less likely to mainly snack on fruit and vegetables between meals, or to eat three or more portions of fruit a day.

Those whose mothers worked flexi time were likely to have healthier lifestyles. However, once other influential factors had been taken into consideration, there was little indication that these children behaved more healthily.

In recent decades, the work patterns of dads have changed moderately. On the other hand, those of mothers have changed greatly. "Approximately 60 percent of mothers with children under five in the US and the UK now go out to work," write the authors.

"But busy working parents may have less time to give their children healthy foods and opportunities for exercise," say the authors. They refer to earlier research, suggesting an association between working mothers and a higher risk of obesity in their children.

"Our results do not imply that mothers should not work," they remark. "Rather, they highlight the need for policies and programmes to help support parents" to create a healthy environment for their children.

They recommend that dietary guidelines for children in formal care (comparable to those already adopted in Scotland, for instance) should be applied in the UK.

"Examining the relationship between maternal employment and health behaviours in 5 year old British children"
S Sherburne Hawkins, T J Cole, C Law, The Millennium Cohort Study Child Health Group
Online First J Epidemiol Community Health 2009; doi: 10.1136/jech.2008.084590
Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health

Written by Stephanie Brunner (B.A.)