British Researchers: Kids Healthier When Moms Don't Work

A study by Britain's Institute of Child Health reports that kids of working mothers are more likely to eat unhealthy snacks and watch a lot of TV. Cue the Guilt Police!

The study looked at 12,500 five-year-olds, and controlled for factors like socioeconomic status and mothers' education. Researchers found that children of working mothers were more likely to drink soda and eat "crisps and sweets" between meals, and less likely to snack on fruits and vegetables, than their peers with stay-at-home moms. Kids whose mothers worked were also more likely to be driven to school, rather than walking or biking, and more likely to spend two or more hours a day watching TV or using the computer. The effect on kids' eating and exercise habits was less when mothers worked part-time than when they work full-time, but still significant, and in fact, the average employed mom in the study worked only 21 hours a week. According to the Guardian, "flexible working had an impact, but [...] no strong effect on the health of the children."

Study author Catherine Law says, "Our results do not imply that mothers should not work. Rather they highlight the need for policies and programmes to help support parents." But coverage of the study in the British media is sending a more alarmist message. The BBC calls the kids' soda-drinking and TV-watching "health behaviours likely to promote excess weight gain," and cites an earlier study on the same population that found children of working mothers (and, interestingly, children of wealthy parents) have higher obesity risk. The Guardian helpfully illustrates the study with a picture of a pudgy kid eating chips in front of the TV. And the Daily Fail sums up the study thus:

[R]esearchers insist the results 'do not imply that mothers should not work'.

But they say there is a definite link between paid employment and a lifestyle that leaves children more at risk from obesity and disease.

Translation: better stay in the kitchen baking wholesome treats (like the mom in the Daily Mail's accompanying picture), or your kids will get fat and sick. Of course, there's little actual mention of the children's health in the coverage of the study — we don't know if kids of working moms are at higher risk for diabetes, if they have more trouble running a mile, et cetera. We do know that flexible work hours supposedly influenced kids' "unhealthy behaviors" but not their overall health, which is confusing but may indicate that the behaviors of the poor abandoned latchkey kids are less dire than they're made out to be. But if kids' health really does suffer when moms work outside the home, the solution isn't to heap more guilt on moms, who often don't have much choice. Instead, as Law says, parents and kids need better support and facilities to make healthy food and exercise more accessible. The BBC mentions Britain's Change4Life program, which provides education about nutrition and exercise, and sounds like a good start.

The study brings up another question, though. Amid all the headlines like "Working Mums 'Harm Child's Progress'" and "Working Mums' 'Child Weight Risk'" (BBC articles linked from the study coverage), where are those other parents? You know, dads? BBC commenter Naomi says,

I'm cross on so many levels, but mainly a personal one! I work, my husband doesn't, he is our daughter's main carer. He walks her to school, he looks after her after school stuff and cooks her meals every day. She has restricted TV time and is not allowed sweets. Why do people insist on saying 'mother' when they often mean 'parent'. It's wrong on other levels too of course, but for me it's the stupidity of assuming a mum should stay at home and a dad should work - are we still in the 50s?

From the Daily Mail photo, it looks like we are.

Image via Daily Mail.

Working Mothers' Children Unfit [BBC]
Working Mothers Have Unhealthiest Children, Study Finds [Guardian]
Working Mums Beware: Why Children Of Stay-At-Home Mothers Have Healthier Lifestyles [Daily Mail]