Are Working Moms Driving Childhood Obesity?

No worries, I am already holding my ears to avoid the screams of protest that I expect to get in response to this post.

But the idea that working moms may well play a noticeable role in the development of childhood obesity is indeed one that is suggested by Angela Pinot de Moira and colleagues from University College London, UK, in a paper just published online in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

The premise is simple: one of the most dramatic demographic shifts in the last decades has been the proportion of moms that work. From being the exception in the 60s, to becoming pretty much the norm for the majority of mothers today, this demographic shift has undoubtedly had profound effects on family life.

Not surprisingly, some have argued, that not having a parent at home (and traditionally this used to be the mom) may very much increase the risk of weight gain in offspring.

Thus, not only do “latchkey kids” have more freedom to eat unhealthy foods and spend afternoons slumped in front of the TV or computer, but long hours at work can also leave moms (or dads) short of time to prepare healthy family meals (ergo the dramatic rise in fastfood and family restaurants).

In addition, working mothers (or dads) may also have to drive their children to school rather than have the time to walk them there and working partents certainly don’t have the time to watch over their kids on the playground all afternoon or be at home in case their kids scrape a leg falling off their bikes or get beaten up by the neighbourhood bully.

So is this hypothesis borne out by the data?

To address this question, the authors examined members of a 1958 British birth cohort (age 7 years, n=8,552) and offspring (ages 4-9 years, n=1,889) born to mothers under age 30 years to establish whether risk factors for childhood obesity have changed over time (1965-1991).

The authors found that the prevalence of overweight/obesity had increased by more than 50% between generations and that parental BMI was strongly associated with offspring BMI.

But perhaps more interestingly, full-time maternal employment turned out to be positively associated with offspring BMI in childhood with an increase of 0.4-0.5 units in kids with working moms. This relationship was in fact stronger in the offspring than in the original cohort.

Maternal employment was found to have increased by more than 30% across generations, as a result of which, the population attributable risk maternal employment increased from 3.1% to 7.8% across generations.

In addition, the authors noted that smaller family size and fewer younger siblings were also associated with increased childhood BMI.

As argued by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi in their bestseller “The Two Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke“, even if all kinds of issues may be linked to working moms, simply asking moms to stay at home is neither feasible nor socially desirable (incidentally, both authors are working moms).

Rather, other measures, including proper and affordable day care, accessible and supervised after-school activities and more flexibility in working hours may help moms (and dads) better meet the demands of their kids, thereby hopefully reducing their risk for obesity.

I wonder what my readers think of this hypothesis and what (if anything) can (should) be done about it.

Edmonton, Alberta

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de Moira AP, Power C, & Li L (2010). Changing Influences on Childhood Obesity: A Study of 2 Generations of the 1958 British Birth Cohort. American journal of epidemiology PMID: 20488872