June 27, 2016

IZA WoL Report: Maternal employment linked to childhood obesity

A new report now published on IZA World of Labor links maternal employment to obesity in children but suggest that this correlation diminishes when high-quality childcare is available

Childhood obesity rates have doubled worldwide since the 1970s, resulting in about 200 million overweight and obese children in 2014. Many developed countries experienced a simultaneous increase in female employment. In a new report, economist Wencke Gwozdz of the Copenhagen Business School summarizes the latest research which offers strong evidence that maternal employment affects childhood obesity. While these findings are supported by studies from the US in particular, but also from Canada, Germany, Japan, Spain, and the UK, studies from other countries have found little evidence of a link between the two.

Differences can be explained by a number of factors: The relationship between maternal employment and childhood obesity depends greatly on where and how children spend time when their parents are at work. In Denmark, which spends the highest percentage within the countries of the OECD on childcare, no correlation between maternal employment and childhood obesity is found, while in the US, a country with very low public investment in childcare, the correlation is very high.

The age of the child is also an important factor. Research suggests that maternal full-time employment has its strongest effect on childhood obesity in mid-childhood (ages 5–10). Furthermore, a child’s weight is likely to be affected by the type of maternal employment, with negative health outcomes associated with non-standard work hours, long shifts, and long commutes. When the total time that parents spend with children is reduced, the quality of time spent together matters even more. Research confirms that warm, loving, and consistent interactions between parents and children are most beneficial to child health outcomes.

Gwozdz does not draw the conclusion that mothers should not work. As she points out, if mothers stay at home, household income is lower, and there is clear evidence that children in lower-income households are more likely to be obese. Thus, encouraging mothers not to work will not necessarily translate into better child health. But empowering families with dual incomes could help to fight obesity. Therefore policy measures should aim at providing working parents with greater flexibility to spend more time with their children (by promoting parental leave, for example) and at developing high-quality and affordable formal childcare.

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Notes for editors:

  • IZA World of Labor (http://wol.iza.org) is a global, freely available online resource that provides policy makers, academics, journalists, and researchers, with clear, concise and evidence-based knowledge on labor economics issues worldwide.
  • The site offers relevant and succinct information on topics including diversity, migration, minimum wage, youth unemployment, employment protection, development, education, gender balance, labor mobility and flexibility among others.
  • Established in 1998, the Institute for the Study of Labor (www.iza.org) is an independent economic research institute focused on the analysis of global labour markets. Based in Bonn, it operates an international network of about 1,300 economists and researchers spanning more than 45 countries.