Dads should take greater role in child health, says study on obesity and mums

A new study on working parents and childhood obesity calls for dads to play a greater role in child health issues.

Childhood obesity


Children of working mums are more likely to be overweight, according to a new study which calls for dads to take some of the burden off women with regard to healthy eating.

The study by Emla Fitzsimons of UCL Institute of Education and Benedetta Pongiglione from Bocconi University is published in the journal Population Health.

The researchers say there is evidence that children of working mums – particularly single mums – are less likely to exercise and more likely to have poorer eating habits than those who don’t work. This is more marked if the mothers work full time. There is no real impact on children’s weight in relation to fathers’ working patterns.

The researchers draw on the UK Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), an ongoing longitudinal study following a representative sample of 19,244 families born between 2000 and 2002 in the UK.  Families were first assessed when children were nine months old, and followed up at ages 3, 5, 7, 11 and 14.

The researchers also found some evidence that the presence of grandparents in the household is beneficial to children’s Body Mass Index, and that children whose grandparents live with them are less likely to be sedentary and more likely to have healthy eating habits, captured by having breakfast every day.

The researchers call for more studies into the detail of working patterns, including the impact of shift work, and say their findings show that mothers continue to carry the burden of childcare responsibilities.

They say: “Given that female participation in the labour market has steadily increased over the last half century, and trends are not expected to change, involving fathers as active players in efforts to tackle the high rates of childhood excess weight and to promote children’s health and wellbeing seem to be a fundamental step.”

They also suggest that programmes encouraging healthy behaviours among children could be better tailored to bring both parents on board and should consider changes in family structures, with an increasing prevalence of single-mother households and households with mothers working full time. They also highlight the role of preschool childcare settings for promoting early healthy behaviours.

Mandy Garner, editor of, said: “The findings call for greater involvement of dads so that not all the onus is on women with regard to child health. Our research shows that an increasing number of dads want to be more involved, but often fear an employer’s reaction if, for instance, they ask for greater flexible working.  There also needs to be more support generally for families in the form of, for instance, affordable after school and holiday activities.

“This study is careful in the conclusions it draws from the research, but often such findings are interpreted in ways that add to feelings of guilt among mums and hark back to an idealised version of the past. This is not helpful. Most families do not have a choice with regard to work these days so the focus needs to be more on how to support parents better and to share the load which falls disproportionately on women currently. This includes more flexible working at all levels of organisations and a focus on sustainable working hours to avoid overwork and burnout.”

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