Effects of Mother’s Employment in Early Childhood on the Risk of Overweight in Adolescence: Regional Comparisons

Year: 2005

Research Center: Southern Rural Development Center, Mississippi State University

Investigator: Nonoyama, Atsuko, Shannon Stokes, Ross Santell, Pippa Simpson, and Jeffrey Gossett

Institution: ETR Associates

Project Contact:
Atsuko Nonoyama
ETR Associates
4 Carbonero Way
Scotts Valley, CA 95066
Phone: 916-449-5819
Fax: 916-449-5800


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.