Background: There is little known about potential mechanisms underlying the association between maternal employment and childhood obesity. The relationships between maternal hours worked per week (none, 1–20 hours, 21+ hours) and children’s dietary and physical activity/inactivity habits were examined. Where mothers were employed, the relationships between flexible work arrangements and these health behaviours were also examined.
Methods: Data from 12 576 singleton children age 5 years in the UK Millennium Cohort Study were analysed. Mothers reported information about their employment patterns. Mothers also reported on indicators of their child’s dietary (crisps/sweets, fruit/vegetables, sweetened beverage, fruit consumption), physical activity (participation in organised exercise, transport to school) and inactivity (television/computer use) habits at age 5.
Results: After adjustment for potential confounding and mediating factors, children whose mothers worked part-time or full-time were more likely to primarily drink sweetened beverages between meals (compared to other beverages), use the television/computer at least 2 hours daily (compared to 0–2) or be driven to school (compared to walk/cycle) than children whose mothers had never been employed. Children whose mothers worked full-time were less likely to primarily eat fruit/vegetables between meals (compared to other snacks) or eat three or more portions of fruit daily (compared to two or fewer). Although in unadjusted analyses children whose mothers used flexible work arrangements engaged in healthier behaviours, relationships were no longer significant after adjustment.
Conclusions: For many families the only parent or both parents are working. This may limit parents’ capacity to provide their children with healthy foods and opportunities for physical activity. Policies and programmes are needed to help support parents and create a health-promoting environment.
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