Obesity among children and youth has become a nationwide concern
because of its wide prevalence and rapid rate of increase in recent years.
Further, not only is the proportion of overweight children rising but also
those who are overweight are heavier than 30 years ago. Some researchers
attribute these developments to an increasing share of meals eaten away
from home due largely to a rapid rise in the number of fast food restaurants.
Children today live in an environment where the fast food industry is
expanding, making unhealthy food more easily accessed than in the past.
Despite societywide changes in the availability of healthy versus unhealthy
food, children are at risk of becoming overweight because of other social,
household, or individual characteristics that determine their exposure to such
food. In this study, mother’s employment was hypothesized to be a key factor
influencing a child’s odds of becoming overweight because of the limited time
to prepare meals at home and the increased consumption of meals away from
home. Specifically, the study examined whether a mother’s employment during
early childhood predicts a child’s chance of becoming overweight in adolescence.
While the amount of fast food that children ate is not directly measured
in this study, the link between maternal employment and overweight in their
children provides a clue to the detrimental impact of the food purchased or
cooked outside of home. This linkage is presumably more commonly observed
in households where mothers have limited time. More importantly, findings
may provide a point of intervention in the obesity epidemic among children.
This study used data from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth
1979 (NLSY79) and from the NLSY79 Children and Young Adults. The
study estimated whether the average number of hours mothers worked
per week during their children’s early childhood (measured at 4 years
old) affected the children’s chances of becoming overweight in adolescence
(measured at either 15 or 16). To assess geographic variations in
this association, a multivariate logistic regression model was estimated for
each of four U.S. regions: Northeast, North Central, South, and West. An
indepth analysis was conducted for only the South because it has the highest
prevalence of overweight children. The total sample included 1,874 children
(777 for the South) born between 1979 and 1985, overrepresenting racial
minority and economically disadvantaged groups.
Control variables used in logistic regression models included hours the
mother worked during her child’s adolescence, mother’s body mass index
(BMI), whether the mother was a teenager when the child was born,
whether the mother was single in the child’s early childhood, years of
education the mother completed by the time her child became an adolescent,
sex and race of the child, household income, and urban residence.
Contrary to the study’s hypothesis, results suggest that in only the Northeast
did the longer hours a mother worked significantly predict reduced
odds of children becoming overweight, controlling for the full set of variables.
No such significant impact of hours worked was found in other regions.
Specifically for the South, when only two variables were used in the model
(i.e., hours mothers worked when the child was 4 years old or an adolescent),
the more hours a mother worked when her child was 4, the lower the odds of
the child becoming overweight. However, this initial association disappeared
when the mother’s BMI and education were controlled. Thus, the more hours a
mother worked reduces the odds of young children becoming overweight over
time, but this link appears to be explained by the mother’s BMI and education.
These findings do not support the notion that the more hours a mother
works during her child’s early childhood the greater the chance the child has
of becoming overweight. In contrast, the benefits of having a working
mother may extend beyond the quality of meals they make available to children.
Young mothers who maintain a stable work environment are possibly
less likely to be overweight themselves and more educated. Furthermore,
their ability to work while raising young children may imply a variety of
other characteristics not considered in this study that promote child health,
such as good local economy, assistance from spouse, extended family or
neighbors, flexible work schedules, high household income, good time-management
skills, and so on. Further research on parental characteristics
implicated in childhood obesity may focus on pathways by which a
mother’s high BMI is related to an increase in obesity in children beyond
the effect of biological makeup or how a mother’s education protects children
from unhealthy weight gains.