Study: Kids gain when Mom's busy

by Timothy J. Cao | 11/27/02 6:00am

A study co-authored by Dartmouth economics Professor Patricia Anderson found that the more hours a child's mother works outside the home, the more likely it is that the child will become overweight.

Working with Kristin Butcher of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and economics Professor Phillip Levine of Wellesley College, Anderson's study -- entitled "Maternal Employment and Overweight Children"-- discovered that a mother's time constraint increases the probability of her children becoming overweight.

Levine said that maternal employment is only "one factor in the increase of childhood overweight" and "does not explain most of the trend" in overweight children.

Their research found that increasing levels of maternal employment between 1975 and 1999 can explain 6 to 11 percent of the growth in childhood overweight.

Levine explained that their research was motivated by recent media attention alluding to a link between working mothers and overweight children.

From 1975 to 1999, the average hours worked by mothers increased by 7.5 hours per week while levels of overweight among children ages six and older rose from roughly 5 percent to over 13 percent. The study's results predict that this increasing level of work alone increases the incidence of overweight children between 4 to 7 percent.

Giavanna Munafo, director of the Dartmouth Women's Resource Center, expressed concern about what this report will mean for already stressed working mothers.

"There's already a lot of anxiety and issues that women in the workplace deal with," she said.

The authors also said they found no evidence to suggest that the child's age at the time a mother enters the workforce has an effect on the probability that the child will become overweight.

Anderson explained, "We looked to see if there was any correlation, but found that it's the intensity of the mother's work that matters."

If a mother goes from working 20 hours per week to 40 hours per week, she increases the probability that her child is overweight by 1 to 2 percent, the researchers discovered.

Peggy O'Mara, publisher of Mothering Magazine, was also concerned about the effect this study will have on working mothers and believes "women should look at creative solutions and get their partner more involved in the nutrition of their kids."

"Working moms are being bombarded with a lot of confusing and negative information," said O'Mara, "so we need to support women in making their own decision and choices."

The effect of working moms is especially strong for children of white mothers, better-educated mothers and affluent mothers, according to the study.

Anderson said that time constraints have a larger impact for wealthier mothers because they would have "more time to take their children to the park" and monitor their children's nutrition, whereas poorer women might still not have the opportunities to provide their children with exercise or nutritious meals.

According to the U.S. surgeon general, 13 percent of children aged six to 11 were overweight in 1999. The percentage of overweight adolescents has nearly tripled in the past two decades.

Overweight adolescents have a 70-percent chance of becoming obese adults and can later develop heart disease, type-2 diabetes, high blood pressure and some forms of cancer.

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