Page last updated at 03:02 GMT, Thursday, 4 March 2010

Do working mums make healthy children?

By Clare Murphy
Health reporter, BBC News

Mother and child
The debate about staying at home or working continues

A new study suggests the children of mothers who work part-time are healthier than those of their full-time or stay-at-home counterparts. Where does this take the debate on the effects of working mothers on the health and happiness of their offspring?

The study of 4,500 Australian pre-schoolers found those whose mothers worked some of the week were less likely to eat junk food, watch TV and over the course of the two-year research period were less likely to become overweight.

The authors suggested that mothers who worked part-time went to "considerable lengths" to ensure the time they did spend with their children was high quality.

"When mothers work part-time, there's obviously something about the way the house is run, and the way parents are looking after their children that is protective," said Jan Nicholson of Melbourne's Murdoch Children's Research Institute.

Mothers' messages

Her study - Do working mothers raise couch potatoes? - concluded that apparently they do if they work more than 34 hours a week, struggling to find the time for family cooking and activities.

The reasons why mothers who do not work have children with less healthy habits are not fully understood, the study says, and requires a closer analysis of "household dynamics".

The findings are the latest in the steady flow of contradictory information on the effects on child wellbeing of the mass movement of mothers into the labour market over recent decades - in the UK some 60% of women with children under five work.

It is a shame these studies always forget the father - if there isn't a healthy meal on the table, why is that always the fault of the working mum?"
Dr Martina Klett-Davies,
Family and Parenting Institute

Within the course of just one month at the end of last year, two major studies were published with different, if not necessarily conflicting, messages for working mothers.

One suggested they were damaging their children's health - with children of both full and part-time mothers less likely to eat an apple and get out and walk to school than those of stay-at-home mothers, the second that they were not harming their emotional and intellectual development in the slightest.

Meanwhile various studies have also thrown up differing perspectives on the potential pitfalls of the childcare they choose.

Nurseries have been accused of fostering anti-social behaviour and increasing stress levels in toddlers, but have also been found to improve educational outcomes and even to lower the risk of a child developing leukaemia because their immune system is stimulated through early contact with others.

Meanwhile grandparents, an increasingly attractive childcare choice for many parents as they tend to be both reliable and free, are now said to increase the chances of a child being overweight - although only in the wealthiest socio-economic groups.

"A lot of the time when you look at the actual statistical differences in these studies, they are really quite small. We see associations, but not necessarily causes," says Prof Heather Joshi, head of the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education.

"All parents should perhaps derive comfort from the fact that what these studies really demonstrate is that there are no clear relationships and conclusive answers - that there is not a one-size-fits-all policy.

"Everybody needs to think carefully about what is right for them and their children, and be prepared to change if it is not working out. You play it by ear."

Forgotten fathers

And some may not have the luxury of choosing whether to stay at home or work, be it part- or full-time.

Limited and expensive childcare mean some who may want to work cannot afford to do so, while others need to work to financially provide for their child.

"Flexible working and better childcare is key," says Dr Martina Klett-Davies of the Family and Parenting Institute. "It is also a shame these studies always forget the father - if there isn't a healthy meal on the table why is that always the fault of the working mum?

"But we also need to be wary of turning parenting into a science. We like the idea that we can provide definitive proof of what is best for children, but a lot of the time all it does is make parents feel even more insecure about the way they do things and the choices they make.

"That, frankly, is not good for anyone."



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SEE ALSO
Grandparents 'boost obesity risk'
15 Feb 10 |  Health
Working mothers' children unfit
28 Sep 09 |  Health
Working mums 'harm child's progress'
14 Nov 03 |  Business
Dads 'to share maternity leave'
15 Sep 09 |  UK Politics
'Support for working mums falls'
06 Aug 08 |  Business
Working mums' 'child weight risk'
23 Jul 07 |  Health

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