Sept. 30, 2009 -- Children of working mothers may be less likely to lead a healthy lifestyle, British researchers found.
British children whose mothers worked part- or full-time were more likely to have bad diet and exercise habits than those whose moms stayed at home, Catherine Law, of University College London, and colleagues reported online in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
Children whose mothers worked part- or full-time were more likely to drink sugary beverages between meals, watch TV or use the computer at least two hours a day, and be driven to school rather than walking or biking, the researchers found.
But Law warned that the results don't imply that working mothers should give up their careers.
"I think it's important not to conceptualize it as something women are doing to harm their children," Law said. "Working women, like all mothers, want to do the best for their children and, indeed, working may be the way of achieving that because it will bring in extra resources for the family."
One of the challenges of being a working parent, she said, is that having more income might allow for exercise programs like swimming lessons or healthier, expensive foods. But on the other hand, she said, working moms may have less time for playtime in the park or to prepare healthy meals.
"There will be challenges in the work-life balance that working moms might face, which are different from the challenges that nonworking moms face," Law said.
Dr. Jennifer Shu, a pediatrician in private practice in Atlanta and co-author of a book on parenting, says she worries that "parents will feel guilty about working, when most do so out of necessity."
She said having good childcare could be one remedy to any health problems posed by parent absence.
"Parents shouldn't feel guilty about leaving kids in other people's care," Shu said. "They just need to be careful that that care is the kind of care they would provide themselves."
Previous studies have not drawn many solid conclusions about the relationship between a mother's working habits and her child's health.
Many Kids Have Poor Health Habits Anyway
So the researchers assessed 12,576 singleton 5-year-old children who participated in the U.K. Millennium Cohort Study.
Mothers reported information about their work habits and about their children's dietary and exercise habits.
Fewer than a third of the mothers in the study -- 30 percent -- were stay-at-home moms. The study did not report whether children attended daycare or were cared for in the home whether by the mother or someone else.
Overall, many kids in the study -- whether their mothers worked outside the home or not -- had poor health habits: 37 percent snacked on potato chips or sweets, 41 percent drank sugary beverages between meals, and 61 percent watched television or used the computer for at least two hours a day.
Working Mother Paradox
In initial analyses, children whose mothers worked actually had healthier habits. But after adjusting for possible confounding factors, such as income and education, those relationships reversed.
Law said that was likely due to the fact that the working women in the cohort were "relatively advantaged" -- many had "high levels of education and relatively high levels of income."
So in adjusted analyses, kids of working moms were more likely to drink sugary beverages between meals, use the computer at least two hours a day, and be driven to school. They were also less likely to snack primarily on fruits and vegetables between meals or eat three or more portions of fruit daily.
They were also more likely to eat junk food between meals.
"In my opinion, it's the [adjusted] results we should take notice of because those are what other studies have not been able to unpick -- whether it's the fact of working or whether it's the types of women who go out into the workforce and what sort of jobs they do," Law said.
Kids of women who had flex time at work, meaning they could make their own schedules, trended toward better lifestyles, but these were not significant after adjustment -- with the exception of their healthy fruit-eating habits.
Employment Patterns Changed Most for Women
Flex time was "not detrimental, but is unlikely to be important in helping parents support the development of positive health behaviors in their children."
The majority of women in the study reported being in charge of household work, which "implies that changes in health behaviors are more likely to be attributed to changes in maternal rather than paternal employment patterns." Law said that employment patterns among mothers have changed in recent decades, while they haven't changed much for fathers.
The researchers emphasized that the results highlight the need for policies and programs to help support working parents.
"I think what's really important is that both family's lives and children's health behaviors are really complex," Law said. "Health behaviors in childhood are going to be influenced by a range of factors, and this might be one."