Posts Tagged ‘working mum’

Do working mothers raise couch potato kids?

It was reported in the news last week that ‘children are healthiest when mother works part time’ A study done by NSW’s University of New England found that children of mothers who worked part time ate less junk food, watched less television, and were less likely to be overweight compared to those whose mothers worked full time or were stay at home mums.

At first glance, this could make sense if we think about mothers who work full time as they probably have less time to cook and do activities with their children. Part time mothers, it could be assumed, are more likely to ensure that the time they do spend with their children is of higher quality.

In that case, why would stay at home mothers have unhealthier children? Perhaps when you are at home full time with your children, you are overwhelmed with them and it is easy to stick them in front of the television to give yourself a break. But why would they eat more junk food and be more obese?

The news reports have assumed that there is a causative relationship, ie, that staying at home full time leads to unhealthy children. However, it is probably more likely that there is a factor which is common to both being a full time stay at home mum, and unhealthy children, that hasn’t been examined (a confounding factor).

For example, we know that people of lower socioeconomic status and with lower incomes are more likely to be overweight, obese and unhealthy. It is not clear from the reports on this study whether the mothers were working before having children, or what income or educational achievements they had. Perhaps mothers are at home full time because it makes no financial sense for them to work once they factor in childcare because their income is low. Or, if they have no specific ‘career’ and worked in unskilled jobs, giving up work may not be as difficult a decision for them. So, it may appear as if being a stay at home mum causes childhood obesity, but the reality may be that there is a casuative factor common to them both.

There are more details that are important too: are the parents overweight and how much television do they watch? For working mothers, who is caring for the child while they are at work? A child in day care is less likely to watch television (I assume that child care centres don’t switch on televisions) that one being looked after by a family member. And where are the fathers? Are mothers working full time because they are single parents? This would make it more likely that they have lower incomes, which again is a risk factor for obesity.

It’s easy to see the results of a study like this reported and make assumptions. Mothers have enough to deal with without headlines making them feel guilty and inviting the wider community to make judgements on their work choices.

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Returning to work, for a new mother, is a big and difficult decision. Once a parent has decided to do this, the next step is looking for childcare.

Child care is talked about as if it is one entity, but of course there are many options and huge variations in the quality of it. Options range from hiring a nanny to come into your house, giving a consistent one on one figure in the familiar surroundings of your home, to home day care, and centre based day care. And of course, the outcomes for children will depend not only on the type and quality of day care, but also on the age at which they go into care and the length of time they spend there. A child who has full-time day care from eight weeks is a different situation to one who attends three half days a week from age three. And the variable that is often not considered is the quality of the relationship with their parents.

In the 1980s, there were a couple of studies which said that having more than 20 hours a week of childcare in the first year of life was associated with a more insecure attachment relationship between mother and child, but these results were controversial. Other studies found no such difference, and a study was designed to answer this question: The NICDH (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development) Study of Early ChildCare and Youth Development. This followed up 1364 children randomly chosen from birth from across the USA, and is still going as the children become older. They found that child care factors themselves (hours, age at entry, quality, frequency of changes in child care) did not predict poor attachment. Children were more likely to be insecurely attached when they had ‘dual risk’  i.e. problems in the relationship with their mother/parent as well as child care factors. Also, good quality child care could ‘compensate’ for a poor mother-infant relationship more than in low-quality care.

(Howes & Spieker: (2008). Attachment Relationships in the context of Multiple Caregivers. In Cassidy and Shaver, (eds.),  Handbook of Attachment, 2nd ed (pp 324-325). New York:  The Guilford Press.)

The study is large and there are many more factors to take into account, but it seems to confirm that child care itself – particularly if it is high quality – is not a risk factor for poor attachment relationships, and probably what is more important is the quality of the mother-child relationship.

As with most things in parenting, each family makes the choices that are right for them. A mother who feels isolated when she isn’t working, or a family under financial stress, is potentially much more of a problem than a child being in some form of child care.

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