Study says: longer work hours for moms mean less sleep, higher BMIs for preschoolers

The past week we had a big discussion in the media on the work-life balance of mothers. Sadly, the discussion was seldom including the dads. Researchers now found a link between moms’ employment and overweight/obesity in preschoolers. The study investigated links between mothers’ employment status and their children’s weight over time, exploring the impact of potential mediators, such as children’s sleep and dietary habits, the amount of time they spent watching TV and family mealtime routines. This study won’t add to the discussion as such, perhaps only some extra guilt, what isn’t the intention at all.

The insights of the study:

 

  • Maternal employment predicts higher child BMI percentile a year later.
  • Child sleep hours partially mediate the link between maternal work and child BMI.
  • Other family routines did not mediate the link between maternal work and child BMI.

 

An interesting segment from the discussion of the paper with advice for educators:

Educational efforts should focus on teaching parents how much sleep young children need and the benefits of adequate sleep. Additionally, educators should provide guidance about how to help children sleep through the night uninterrupted (e.g., removing televisions from the bedroom and creating a dark and quiet space for sleep) and manage time so that an early and consistent bedtime can be established.

From the press release:

Published online by the journal Sleep Medicine, the study investigated links between mothers’ employment status and their children’s weight over time, exploring the impact of potential mediators, such as children’s sleep and dietary habits, the amount of time they spent watching TV and family mealtime routines.

“The only factor of the four that we investigated that mediated the relationship between maternal employment status and child obesity was how much sleep the child was getting each night,” said lead author Katherine E. Speirs, a postdoctoral research associate in human and community development at the University of Illinois.

Speirs and co-authors Janet M. Liechty and Chi-Fang Wu for one year followed 247 mother-child pairs from the STRONG Kids study. A health awareness initiative for families that focuses on preventing child obesity, the study is coordinated by the university’s Family Resiliency Center.

The children, who ranged from 3 to 5 years old, were weighed, measured and had their body mass index calculated at the outset of the study and again one year later.

At the second weigh-in, 17 percent of the preschoolers were overweight and 12 percent were obese, according to BMI-for-age growth charts.

Sixty-six percent of the mothers in the sample were employed full time, defined as working 35 hours or more per week. Another 18 percent of the women were employed part time, or 20 to 34 hours per week.

Children whose mothers worked full time got fewer hours of sleep than peers whose mothers worked less than 20 hours per week. The children of women who worked full time also tended to have higher BMIs at the second weigh-in.

Just 18 percent of the preschoolers in the sample were getting the 11 to 12 hours of nightly sleep recommended by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the researchers found.

On average, the children were getting about 9.6 hours of nighttime sleep. Each additional hour of nighttime sleep that a child obtained was associated with a 6.8 percent decrease in their BMI at the second weigh-in, the researchers found.

“We looked at nighttime sleep in particular, because studies show that the amount of nighttime sleep matters for regulating weight,” said Liechty, a professor of medicine and of social work.

“We think that it might be the more hours that mothers are working, the less time they have, and there may be some sort of tradeoff going on, ‘Do I spend quality time with my child or do we get to bed early?'” Speirs said. “And then in the morning, when mothers leave for work, their children also wake up early to get to day care.”

Mothers whose children were enrolled in 32 licensed day care centers in Central Illinois were recruited for the study. Sixty-six percent of the women had college degrees; about a third had household incomes under $40,000 a year, and just over half the sample had household incomes under $70,000 a year. “The challenges of ensuring that children obtain adequate sleep may be even greater for low-income women, who often hold multiple jobs or work rotating shifts or nonstandard hours,” Speirs said.

“There are lots of characteristics about mothers’ employment that are really important to help us better understand the relationship between mothers’ employment status and child obesity, such as whether women are working part time voluntarily or involuntarily, or scheduled or nonscheduled hours,” said Wu, a professor of social work. The authors are exploring some of these characteristics and possible links with child obesity in a related study, which is currently underway.

Abstract of the study:

Background

It has been established that the more time mothers spend working outside of the home, the more likely their preschool-aged children are to be overweight. However, the mechanisms explaining this relationship are not well understood. Our objective was to explore child sleep, dietary habits, TV time, and family mealtime routines as mediators of the relationship between maternal employment status (full-time, part-time, and no or minimal employment) and child body mass index (BMI) percentile.

Methods

Data were drawn from waves 1 and 2 of STRONG Kids, a prospective panel study examining childhood obesity among parent–preschooler dyads (n = 247). Mothers reported their own work hours, their child’s hours of nighttime sleep, dietary habits, TV time, and mealtime routines. Trained staff measured child height and weight.

Results

Compared to working 0–19 h/week, both full-time (>35 h/week) and part-time (20–34 h/week) employment predicted higher child BMI percentile 1 year later. Hours of child nighttime sleep partially mediated the association between maternal full-time employment and child BMI percentile. Adjusting for individual and family characteristics, children whose mothers were employed full time were less likely to sleep longer hours than children whose mothers were employed 0–19 h/week (b = −0.49, p < 0.04). Shorter child nighttime sleep was associated with higher BMI percentile (b = −7.31, p < 0.001). None of the other mediation pathways tested were significant.

Conclusions

These findings add to the growing literature on the importance of adequate sleep for young children’s health.

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