British study finds working moms raise unhealthy kids

Posted by Lylah M. Alphonse  November 11, 2009 08:07 AM

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The embers of the Stay-at-Home vs. Work-out-of-the-Home Mommy Wars must have grown cold there for a moment; good thing this study came along to fan the flames. According to a recent BBC News story, young kids whose mothers work are less likely to lead healthy lives than those with stay-at-home moms.

The study by the UCL Institute of Child Heath (ICH) focused on the families of 12,500 5-year-olds. (The same children took part in an earlier study which found that those with working mothers were more likely to be obese or overweight by the age of 3.) Among the findings:

* Five-year-olds whose mothers worked part-time or full-time were more likely to primarily consume sweetened drinks between meals.

* Five-year-olds with working mothers used their computers or watched television for at least two hours a day.

* Kids with working moms were more likely to be driven to school compared to the children of "stay at home" mothers who tended to walk or ride their bikes.

Professor Catherine Law, who led the study, theorized that working moms may not have enough time to provide healthy foods or opportunities for physical activity, but insisted that the results of the study "do not imply that mothers should not work." (Indeed... the British Institute for Economic and Social Research took care of that with their 2003 study, which concluded that "going back to work after the birth of a child can have a negative impact on a child's development - unless you have lots of money.") Instead, Law says, her study shows that there need to be more policies and programs to help support parents.

Personally, I think the fact that kids who are unhealthy at age 3 are still unhealthy two years later seems to have more to do with education than employment. Working outside of the home doesn't automatically make you buy cookies and soda when you're stocking the pantry, but if heavily processed convenience foods are less expensive and more widely available than more-nutritious options it's easy to see how obesity and ill health could be rampant. While spending tons of time in front of the tube isn't good for anyone, what your kids are watching has much more of an impact than the fact that the TV is on; a Harvard Medical School study earlier this year found that while TV time isn't beneficial for kids, it's not necessarily harmful either. (Yes, computer time is still time spent in front of a screen, but there are plenty of great educational sites for kids out there.)

The ICH study did not look at fathers and their employment levels or the impact they have on their children's health, because their numbers have remained stable while the number of moms in the workforce has "increased dramatically." But in this economy, working outside of the home is less of a choice and more of a necessity for many people. And more families strive to share the parenting duties more evenly instead of letting all of the responsibilities rest on the mom. Ignoring those facts skews the study's results pretty dramatically.

Parents, what do you think? Are healthy lifestyle habits undermined when both parents work outside of the home?

Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at lalphonse@globe.com.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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24 comments so far...
  1. Another blow to working moms who are already riddled with guilt. I work 4 days a week with Fridays off, and what's ironic in my case is that my son (2 yrs old) has fallen off the curve for weight. We are trying everything to pack the calories on him (pediasure, high-fat meals, extra butter on everything as suggested by our pediatrician, etc.).

    Posted by mamabear November 11, 09 09:56 AM
  1. What a bunch of crap! What was the educational level of the women surveyed? The age? The income? Blah blah blah.

    Posted by just_cos November 11, 09 10:55 AM
  1. Can we move beyond attacking working women please? Women work. Society needs to just get over it and deal with it!

    Posted by jasper November 11, 09 02:01 PM
  1. How are the kids that have stay at home Dads?

    Posted by Eileen November 11, 09 02:01 PM
  1. Would the professor who led this study like to pay my mortgage and bills? Whether both parents are working or not, you can give your kids healthy lifestyle habits if you actually put in the time and effort. All this study will do is give some working mothers an excuse for why their kids watch tv all day or eat junk. "but I work all day so I can't cook a healthy meal."

    It just makes me mad when I read these broad generalizations get made by "researchers" who think they know it all.

    Posted by Heather November 11, 09 02:11 PM
  1. I don't have kids, but is this a case of some kids reacting well to their mother working, and some not?

    I equate this to "Army brat" kids - some don't mind moving every few years to different places (Germany, etc.). Some do mind, having to leave friends behind and adjust to somewhere new. Every kid is different.

    Posted by qbqt November 11, 09 02:12 PM
  1. If they only looked at the families of 5-year olds, how do they reach this conclusion:

    * Kids with working moms were more likely to be driven to school compared to the children of "stay at home" mothers who tended to walk or ride their bikes.

    (Unlike the other findings, there is no age mentioned here).

    Personally, our elementary school does not allow bike riding due to traffic, and I don't know any kindergartners that walk to school unless they live right next door. (I'm sure there are exceptions).


    I work and it allows me to do our shopping at Whole Foods exclusively. I know stay at home Moms who shop at Market Basket and buy lots of processed food. Who is making the healthier choice?

    Posted by Debra S. November 11, 09 02:17 PM
  1. This is nonsense. Another way to make working mothers feel bad. Where is the article about the unhealthy children because their fathers work?

    My point exactly, Sabs! -- LMA

    Posted by Sabs November 11, 09 02:38 PM
  1. Without looking at the families as a whole, this study is pretty meaningless. Families with working moms are MUCH more likely to be single-parent families than families with stay-at-home moms. It should come as no surprise that two-parent families provide more parental time for the children.

    Many working mothers (especially single mothers) don't have the choice of whether or not to work, which makes the whole study somewhat pointless. If the study had looked at two-parent families in which the mother CHOOSES to work, and the family has the means to send their children to a quality pre-school --- I'll bet the conclusions would have been quite different.

    Posted by Bob November 11, 09 02:49 PM
  1. This is ridiculous.

    Posted by Michelle November 11, 09 03:44 PM
  1. Bob - That's rubbish. I was raised in a two parent family, my mother worked. Her mother worked and her parents remained together until death parted them. My father's mother worked, and death was the point of separation there too. Growing up, there were few children in divorced homes in our school, and FEWER children with stay-at-home moms.

    Now, I work and my husband stays home. He didn't get laid off either. He made the choice to do so. My bosses wife works, my daughter's friends mothers work. Oh...and they're not divorced either.

    And whether or not the moms in question are single or attached, I don't know if you've noticed, but the cost of living continues to rise while wages do not. That means that eventually, both parents may find that they have no choice but to try to earn to keep their families afloat.

    Thanks for raising my BP.

    Posted by Phe November 11, 09 04:31 PM
  1. I think all mothers, SAH or WM, feel some level of guilt about something! Both are easier and harder in different respects. Instead of beating each other up, we should be working together to figure out how to balance it all and help each other. As women, we don't do that anymore; we don't help each other. We have become our own worst enemy and that is too bad. We need each other. We all love our kids. Bottom line and we all do what we feel is best for our families. We have to support each other!

    Posted by kara1464 November 11, 09 05:06 PM
  1. I stayed home with my kids for the first five years and have gone back to work this summer so we could move and take our daughter out of the Boston public schools.
    Yes, their diet has taken a hit. I used spend Friday morning to go to Haymarket and bring home 40 pounds of produce a week, now we have frozen pizza twice a week. I did used to walk my kids to school and now I drive them because I drop them off at 7:30AM. They have lost in some areas, but they have also gained in others. Last year my daughter begged not to go to school every morning - now she has school spirit for her incredibly well staffed and resourced school. They build stick houses in the woods behind our new house and swim every day at the town beach in the summer. So sure, it's true, measured strictly by diet and miles walked my kids are less healthy now that I work, but on the whole I think it's been a good decision for them.


    Posted by Both worlds November 11, 09 07:08 PM
  1. TO Debra:

    I'm with you, sister, except on the walking thing. There are plenty of kindergarteners who walk to my kids' school - accompanied by an older child or an adult. I leave for work early in the morning, but my husband walks the kids to school most days unless the weather is inclement.

    Posted by akmom November 11, 09 07:55 PM
  1. The title of your article is very misleading. If you read the abstract of the actual journal article, the researchers do not conclude that "working moms raise unhealthy children." They state that limited time may reduce a person's capacity to provide healthy foods/activities. That is true for any parent, male or female. What this really reflects on is the poor system of food production/distribution and formal child care. Of course they are going to drink juice because that it was is prepackaged, shelf-stable, and convenient. Of course they are less likely to eat fresh things if no one (at the child care provider) is available/willing to prepare them.

    I would like to read the entire journal article and see the numbers before I make comment on the study, but I think your title and portrayal of the study "fans the flames" more than the research does.

    Posted by maebyn November 11, 09 08:16 PM
  1. I believe it is more of a socioeconomic issue than anything else. As Bob said, single mothers and families who are low to middle income generally cannot afford to not work (or have one parent not work). A lot of the other problems mentioned are also related to socioeconomic status -- and it's really important to remember that correlation and causation are two ENTIRELY different things.

    We have to make choices that are the best for our own families. In fact, I don't know that many people who can actually choose not to work (either mother or father) because just getting by these days requires two incomes. It wasn't always like that but it is now. If one parent can provide an income large enough to compensate for the lack of income on the other parent's part, more power to the family, but I just don't know that many people for whom that is true.

    Posted by ExpectantMom November 11, 09 09:07 PM
  1. My first grader complained today - "mom why don't you put anything fun in my lunch". All of the other kids have candy in their lunch bags.
    Or Mom " I'm a first grader now can I get the special big ice cream now at the cafeteria". Today I thought I'd treat my daughter to a couple of easy prepackaged snacks from the grocery store - goldfish, oreos and capri sun flavored water ( labeled no preseratives).
    Well - taking a second look the package size is way too much - 6 oreos in a snackpack, the natural flavored water is flavored with high fructose syrup and the goldfish was over 2 cups full. All seemed harmlesslike what the other kids bringbuit no wonder kids are fat. Portions are way too big. Healthy food is expensive too.

    Posted by Stephanie November 11, 09 09:29 PM
  1. We have bills. I work. My husband works. My kids eat fruit, vegetables, and their share of snacks, yes. They also have never had a can of soda (sips here and there) and drink milk and water with meals. They are well balanced, they go to school and they love daycare because they have made great friends there. People believe what they want to believe. What works for one family doesn't always work for the next. Believe me, my kids love junkfood, but because they go to daycare, snacks are limited and they understand and appreciate a good schedule. They are easy going and healthy, couldn't ask for anything more. I'd love to be home with my kids, but I just can't.

    Posted by LAO November 11, 09 09:34 PM
  1. Why don't we just blame these things on vaccinations and leave the mothers alone?

    Posted by dmetrick November 11, 09 09:45 PM
  1. Seriously? I work 4 days. On Sundays, I made 4 home cooked meals for the week. I do not feed my children processed foods and beverages served are typically white milk and/or water. We have a rule in our house all meals are served with a fruit and vegetable. That's how we eat. I'm an avid runner and make it a top priority to keep my children active. Don't get me wrong, my kids love dessert but they can only have it after they've eaten their fruits and veggies. To be honest, our family eats better and is more active than most families, regardless of working status. It's all about balance and this study is way off balance.

    Posted by saos November 12, 09 08:12 AM
  1. Wow, looks like somebody could have spent a little bit more time researching this one.
    "The ICH study did not look at fathers and their employment levels or the impact they have on their children's health, because their numbers have remained stable while the number of moms in the workforce has "increased dramatically.""
    Really?! How many articles have we all read in the last few years talking about the increasing trend of stay at home dads while mom goes out in the work force? This certainly doesn't describe a situation where their "numbers have remained stable".
    And then, there's this gem;
    "Instead, Law says, her study shows that there need to be more policies and programs to help support parents."
    Sure, because we all know how much better the family is when the government steps in and fixes things, right? After all, with the right policies and programs, there is no need any more for any biological parents, that program can teach my kid how to ride a bike so much more effectively than I can.
    I think it's time to stop looking to British studies to provide an American context. After all, there was a reason our forefathers left that regime.

    Posted by todd November 12, 09 10:51 AM
  1. Appreciate your viewpoint Maebyn. The more studies there are that show today's parents are stressed beyond what is healthy for themselves and their children, the greater the possibility that societal and policy views will change to help relieve those stresses.

    Posted by just1voice November 12, 09 11:22 AM
  1. This is so infuriating. Why do they even conduct these studies?? Many, MANY women work because they have to. Are they now supposed to feel even more guilty about the time they need to spend away from their kids? And what about the women who choose to work? Are they supposed to feel even worse? Many women work because they enjoy it. It makes them happier people, and therefore a BETTER parent.

    I have done both. Both are VERY HARD. Parenting is just hard work. This kind of research is completely unproductive for everyone. Why not spend that time and money focusing on how to better enhance resources available to parents, working and non-working.

    Posted by mytwocents November 12, 09 01:54 PM
  1. "I work and it allows me to do our shopping at Whole Foods exclusively. I know stay at home Moms who shop at Market Basket and buy lots of processed food. Who is making the healthier choice"

    There are plenty of working parents, as well as stay at home parents, who shop at Market Basket because that's all they can afford. Not everyone who shops there feeds their kids junk. Sounds like your shopping excursions at Whole Food are more about feeding your ego than they are about feeding your family. If not, why don't you put your money where your mouth is and join a CSA or a food co-op? Or do those not afford you the same status?

    Posted by haus frau November 16, 09 09:50 PM
 
24 comments so far...
  1. Another blow to working moms who are already riddled with guilt. I work 4 days a week with Fridays off, and what's ironic in my case is that my son (2 yrs old) has fallen off the curve for weight. We are trying everything to pack the calories on him (pediasure, high-fat meals, extra butter on everything as suggested by our pediatrician, etc.).

    Posted by mamabear November 11, 09 09:56 AM
  1. What a bunch of crap! What was the educational level of the women surveyed? The age? The income? Blah blah blah.

    Posted by just_cos November 11, 09 10:55 AM
  1. Can we move beyond attacking working women please? Women work. Society needs to just get over it and deal with it!

    Posted by jasper November 11, 09 02:01 PM
  1. How are the kids that have stay at home Dads?

    Posted by Eileen November 11, 09 02:01 PM
  1. Would the professor who led this study like to pay my mortgage and bills? Whether both parents are working or not, you can give your kids healthy lifestyle habits if you actually put in the time and effort. All this study will do is give some working mothers an excuse for why their kids watch tv all day or eat junk. "but I work all day so I can't cook a healthy meal."

    It just makes me mad when I read these broad generalizations get made by "researchers" who think they know it all.

    Posted by Heather November 11, 09 02:11 PM
  1. I don't have kids, but is this a case of some kids reacting well to their mother working, and some not?

    I equate this to "Army brat" kids - some don't mind moving every few years to different places (Germany, etc.). Some do mind, having to leave friends behind and adjust to somewhere new. Every kid is different.

    Posted by qbqt November 11, 09 02:12 PM
  1. If they only looked at the families of 5-year olds, how do they reach this conclusion:

    * Kids with working moms were more likely to be driven to school compared to the children of "stay at home" mothers who tended to walk or ride their bikes.

    (Unlike the other findings, there is no age mentioned here).

    Personally, our elementary school does not allow bike riding due to traffic, and I don't know any kindergartners that walk to school unless they live right next door. (I'm sure there are exceptions).


    I work and it allows me to do our shopping at Whole Foods exclusively. I know stay at home Moms who shop at Market Basket and buy lots of processed food. Who is making the healthier choice?

    Posted by Debra S. November 11, 09 02:17 PM
  1. This is nonsense. Another way to make working mothers feel bad. Where is the article about the unhealthy children because their fathers work?

    My point exactly, Sabs! -- LMA

    Posted by Sabs November 11, 09 02:38 PM
  1. Without looking at the families as a whole, this study is pretty meaningless. Families with working moms are MUCH more likely to be single-parent families than families with stay-at-home moms. It should come as no surprise that two-parent families provide more parental time for the children.

    Many working mothers (especially single mothers) don't have the choice of whether or not to work, which makes the whole study somewhat pointless. If the study had looked at two-parent families in which the mother CHOOSES to work, and the family has the means to send their children to a quality pre-school --- I'll bet the conclusions would have been quite different.

    Posted by Bob November 11, 09 02:49 PM
  1. This is ridiculous.

    Posted by Michelle November 11, 09 03:44 PM
  1. Bob - That's rubbish. I was raised in a two parent family, my mother worked. Her mother worked and her parents remained together until death parted them. My father's mother worked, and death was the point of separation there too. Growing up, there were few children in divorced homes in our school, and FEWER children with stay-at-home moms.

    Now, I work and my husband stays home. He didn't get laid off either. He made the choice to do so. My bosses wife works, my daughter's friends mothers work. Oh...and they're not divorced either.

    And whether or not the moms in question are single or attached, I don't know if you've noticed, but the cost of living continues to rise while wages do not. That means that eventually, both parents may find that they have no choice but to try to earn to keep their families afloat.

    Thanks for raising my BP.

    Posted by Phe November 11, 09 04:31 PM
  1. I think all mothers, SAH or WM, feel some level of guilt about something! Both are easier and harder in different respects. Instead of beating each other up, we should be working together to figure out how to balance it all and help each other. As women, we don't do that anymore; we don't help each other. We have become our own worst enemy and that is too bad. We need each other. We all love our kids. Bottom line and we all do what we feel is best for our families. We have to support each other!

    Posted by kara1464 November 11, 09 05:06 PM
  1. I stayed home with my kids for the first five years and have gone back to work this summer so we could move and take our daughter out of the Boston public schools.
    Yes, their diet has taken a hit. I used spend Friday morning to go to Haymarket and bring home 40 pounds of produce a week, now we have frozen pizza twice a week. I did used to walk my kids to school and now I drive them because I drop them off at 7:30AM. They have lost in some areas, but they have also gained in others. Last year my daughter begged not to go to school every morning - now she has school spirit for her incredibly well staffed and resourced school. They build stick houses in the woods behind our new house and swim every day at the town beach in the summer. So sure, it's true, measured strictly by diet and miles walked my kids are less healthy now that I work, but on the whole I think it's been a good decision for them.


    Posted by Both worlds November 11, 09 07:08 PM
  1. TO Debra:

    I'm with you, sister, except on the walking thing. There are plenty of kindergarteners who walk to my kids' school - accompanied by an older child or an adult. I leave for work early in the morning, but my husband walks the kids to school most days unless the weather is inclement.

    Posted by akmom November 11, 09 07:55 PM
  1. The title of your article is very misleading. If you read the abstract of the actual journal article, the researchers do not conclude that "working moms raise unhealthy children." They state that limited time may reduce a person's capacity to provide healthy foods/activities. That is true for any parent, male or female. What this really reflects on is the poor system of food production/distribution and formal child care. Of course they are going to drink juice because that it was is prepackaged, shelf-stable, and convenient. Of course they are less likely to eat fresh things if no one (at the child care provider) is available/willing to prepare them.

    I would like to read the entire journal article and see the numbers before I make comment on the study, but I think your title and portrayal of the study "fans the flames" more than the research does.

    Posted by maebyn November 11, 09 08:16 PM
  1. I believe it is more of a socioeconomic issue than anything else. As Bob said, single mothers and families who are low to middle income generally cannot afford to not work (or have one parent not work). A lot of the other problems mentioned are also related to socioeconomic status -- and it's really important to remember that correlation and causation are two ENTIRELY different things.

    We have to make choices that are the best for our own families. In fact, I don't know that many people who can actually choose not to work (either mother or father) because just getting by these days requires two incomes. It wasn't always like that but it is now. If one parent can provide an income large enough to compensate for the lack of income on the other parent's part, more power to the family, but I just don't know that many people for whom that is true.

    Posted by ExpectantMom November 11, 09 09:07 PM
  1. My first grader complained today - "mom why don't you put anything fun in my lunch". All of the other kids have candy in their lunch bags.
    Or Mom " I'm a first grader now can I get the special big ice cream now at the cafeteria". Today I thought I'd treat my daughter to a couple of easy prepackaged snacks from the grocery store - goldfish, oreos and capri sun flavored water ( labeled no preseratives).
    Well - taking a second look the package size is way too much - 6 oreos in a snackpack, the natural flavored water is flavored with high fructose syrup and the goldfish was over 2 cups full. All seemed harmlesslike what the other kids bringbuit no wonder kids are fat. Portions are way too big. Healthy food is expensive too.

    Posted by Stephanie November 11, 09 09:29 PM
  1. We have bills. I work. My husband works. My kids eat fruit, vegetables, and their share of snacks, yes. They also have never had a can of soda (sips here and there) and drink milk and water with meals. They are well balanced, they go to school and they love daycare because they have made great friends there. People believe what they want to believe. What works for one family doesn't always work for the next. Believe me, my kids love junkfood, but because they go to daycare, snacks are limited and they understand and appreciate a good schedule. They are easy going and healthy, couldn't ask for anything more. I'd love to be home with my kids, but I just can't.

    Posted by LAO November 11, 09 09:34 PM
  1. Why don't we just blame these things on vaccinations and leave the mothers alone?

    Posted by dmetrick November 11, 09 09:45 PM
  1. Seriously? I work 4 days. On Sundays, I made 4 home cooked meals for the week. I do not feed my children processed foods and beverages served are typically white milk and/or water. We have a rule in our house all meals are served with a fruit and vegetable. That's how we eat. I'm an avid runner and make it a top priority to keep my children active. Don't get me wrong, my kids love dessert but they can only have it after they've eaten their fruits and veggies. To be honest, our family eats better and is more active than most families, regardless of working status. It's all about balance and this study is way off balance.

    Posted by saos November 12, 09 08:12 AM
  1. Wow, looks like somebody could have spent a little bit more time researching this one.
    "The ICH study did not look at fathers and their employment levels or the impact they have on their children's health, because their numbers have remained stable while the number of moms in the workforce has "increased dramatically.""
    Really?! How many articles have we all read in the last few years talking about the increasing trend of stay at home dads while mom goes out in the work force? This certainly doesn't describe a situation where their "numbers have remained stable".
    And then, there's this gem;
    "Instead, Law says, her study shows that there need to be more policies and programs to help support parents."
    Sure, because we all know how much better the family is when the government steps in and fixes things, right? After all, with the right policies and programs, there is no need any more for any biological parents, that program can teach my kid how to ride a bike so much more effectively than I can.
    I think it's time to stop looking to British studies to provide an American context. After all, there was a reason our forefathers left that regime.

    Posted by todd November 12, 09 10:51 AM
  1. Appreciate your viewpoint Maebyn. The more studies there are that show today's parents are stressed beyond what is healthy for themselves and their children, the greater the possibility that societal and policy views will change to help relieve those stresses.

    Posted by just1voice November 12, 09 11:22 AM
  1. This is so infuriating. Why do they even conduct these studies?? Many, MANY women work because they have to. Are they now supposed to feel even more guilty about the time they need to spend away from their kids? And what about the women who choose to work? Are they supposed to feel even worse? Many women work because they enjoy it. It makes them happier people, and therefore a BETTER parent.

    I have done both. Both are VERY HARD. Parenting is just hard work. This kind of research is completely unproductive for everyone. Why not spend that time and money focusing on how to better enhance resources available to parents, working and non-working.

    Posted by mytwocents November 12, 09 01:54 PM
  1. "I work and it allows me to do our shopping at Whole Foods exclusively. I know stay at home Moms who shop at Market Basket and buy lots of processed food. Who is making the healthier choice"

    There are plenty of working parents, as well as stay at home parents, who shop at Market Basket because that's all they can afford. Not everyone who shops there feeds their kids junk. Sounds like your shopping excursions at Whole Food are more about feeding your ego than they are about feeding your family. If not, why don't you put your money where your mouth is and join a CSA or a food co-op? Or do those not afford you the same status?

    Posted by haus frau November 16, 09 09:50 PM
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