Science and Life
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  Working mums' kids less healthy
Children of working mothers are more likely to have an unhealthy lifestyle than of those that stay at home, according to a UK study.

But experts are quick to point out that the blame should not be heaped on parents, and suggest more be done to support working families.

The research, led by Dr Catherine Law of the Institute of Child Health at the University College London, examined more than 12,500 five year old children who were part of the UK Millennium Cohort Study.

The findings appear in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

The mothers were questioned about the hours they worked and their children's diet, exercise levels, and sedentary activities such as how long their child spent in front of a TV or computer each day.
Reversed trend

The initial findings found that children whose mothers worked full-time were less likely to drink sweetened drinks or eat 'unhealthy' snack between meals, and were more likely to eat three or more portions of fruit each day.

But when the researchers adjusted for factors such as socioeconomic circumstances, mother's academic qualification, age and ethnicity, the results changed dramatically.

"Children whose mothers worked part-time or full-time were more likely to primarily drink sweetened beverages between meals, use the television/computer at least two hours daily or be driven to school," they write.

They found a similar trend when adjusting for household income.

"Time constraints may limit parents' capacity to provide their children with healthy foods and opportunities for physical activity," they write.

Associate Professor Jo Salmon of the Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research at Deakin University in Melbourne says the findings are not surprising.

"Mothers are considered the 'gatekeepers' of children's health behaviours and in nutrition and physical activity research, the mother's demographic characteristics are commonly accounted for in acknowledgement of this," says Salmon.

"For example, the education level of the mother is often related to the child's health behaviours, so it is not surprising that the working patterns of mothers in this study was found to be associated with children's physical activity and eating behaviours."
Other factors?

Nutritionist Dr Peter Clifton of the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Adelaide believes socioeconomic factors, not work hours, play the biggest role in childhood diet and exercise.

"I see no obvious connection between soft drink consumption and working mothers unless the working mothers were lower socioeconomic status, lower education, etc," he says. "It is this factor not the fact of working that accounts for the relationship."

Clifton says, while the results of this study might suggest otherwise, "the most important factors are education and family income."

The study's authors are careful not to place blame on working mothers.

"Our results do not imply that mothers should not work," they write. "Rather they highlight the need for policies and programs to help support parents."

Salmon agrees. "We have to be careful not to blame mums," she says. "We need to provide more support for mothers that are time poor."
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