Childhood overweight

The picture shows a child with a muffin.

When mothers and fathers work long hours, their preschool children are more likely to become overweight or obese.

02.08.2019 · Economics, Social Sciences, Spatial Research · WZB Berlin Social Science Center · News · Research result

When mothers and fathers work long hours, their preschool children are more likely to become overweight or obese. This is the new finding of a study led by WZB researcher, Jianghong Li, on the impact of both mothers’ and fathers’ work hours on preschool children’s body mass index (BMI). The study followed families over three points in time, with children aged 0-1, 2-3, and 5-6, using longitudinal data from the German Socio-Economic Panel Study (SOEP).

Preschool is a critical developmental stage for growth in child BMI. The study found that when mothers worked 35 or more hours per week, preschool children were more likely to become overweight or obese than if mothers did not work at all. The risk of children becoming overweight as a result of their mothers’ work hours is increased if fathers also worked long hours (55 or more hours per week). In this case, even mothers’ long part-time hours (24-34 hours per week) had a negative effect on children’s bodyweight. This demonstrates that fathers’ work hours also play an important role. This study was one of few to focus on the joint effects of both, mothers’ and fathers’, work hours on child BMI.

The effect of parents’ long work hours on their children’s BMI is mainly found for children living in middle- and high-income families. According to the WZB researcher, Jianghong Li, the highly plausible reason for this effect is that when mothers work long work hours, diet quality and levels of physical activity for preschool children drop, as previous research in Germany and other developed countries has shown. Another potential cause could be disrupted sleep patterns in children whose parents work long hours. Due to lack of data, Li and her colleagues were unable to empirically examine these plausible pathways, but they call for future research to investigate them.

In contrast, maternal and paternal work hours were not linked to changes in child bodyweight for low-income families. “Low-income parents are perhaps less informed about the importance of diet quality and physical activities for children’s risk of becoming overweight and obese. So working fewer or more working hours may not lead to any significant change in diet quality and the levels of physical activities of their children. It is also plausible that for low-income families, the benefits of additional income gained through working longer hours balances out any negative impacts of time constraint,” Li explains.

Regardless of the children’s social background, attending a childcare center is associated with a lower likelihood of becoming overweight or obese. “Government investment in raising or maintaining the quality of childcare centers, particularly in the provision of healthy food and adequate physical activity, is likely to help working parents manage child diet and physical activity,” says Li.

The researchers analyzed longitudinal data on children’s body mass index (BMI) and parents’ work hours, which were collected in the German Socioeconomic Panel Study (SOEP) for 2,413 children at age 0-1, ages 2-3, and ages 5-6, surveyed between 2003 and 2014.

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