Parenting helps to explain the link between maternal education and children’s BMI

Published: 11 April 2016

Parenting practices help to explain why mothers with low levels of education are likely to have children with a high body mass index (BMI), according to new research..

Parenting practices help to explain why mothers with low levels of education are likely to have children with a high body mass index (BMI), according to new research.parent and young child hand-in-hand

The study, which was led by a team of researchers from the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow, found that the lower a mother’s education level, the more likely her children were to have a bedroom TV, eat meals informally in front of a TV, and have less positive social interaction at mealtimes. These parenting practices were associated with the child having a less healthy diet, which in turn led to BMI increasing more rapidly between the ages of four and eight years.

The research, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, used data from over 2,900 families in the Growing Up in Scotland study, who were surveyed from 2004 to 2011.

Lead author of the study, Dr Alison Parkes, said: “Lower maternal educational levels have been linked to higher child body mass index in many countries, but the reasons for this are not well understood. In this study, we investigated whether maternal education is linked to young children’s BMI, via parenting and unhealthy diet.

“We found that lower levels of maternal education predicted a steeper increase in child BMI from the age of four to eight. We found this steeper increase even after accounting for the fact that mothers with lower levels of education also tend to have a higher BMI themselves.

“We also found that a substantial part of this steeper BMI increase relating to lower maternal education could be explained in terms of the effects of parenting on the quality of the child’s diet, which in turn predicted the child’s BMI.”

The researchers conducted the study by looking at mothers’ education, noted at the time their child was 10 months old, and ranking it in five levels, from no education to degree-level education. Children’s height and weight were measured by researchers when children were four, six and eight years old, and used to calculate their BMI. Unhealthy diet was based on how often the child consumed sweets, crisps, soft drinks, fruit and vegetables; and whether they skipped breakfast. Mothers were asked about parenting when their child was four and five years old.

The authors also looked at other factors which might influence children’s BMI, including household income and area deprivation, however no strong correlation between these factors and child BMI was found after taking account of mothers’ own BMI.

Instead, the authors suggest that BMI inequalities between children are largely borne out of parenting practices that may be more related to culture than to family income levels.

Dr Parkes said: “There is a strong relationship between mother’s education and parenting practices, which ultimately impacts on children’s diet and BMI. Our results support other research suggesting links between food consumption while watching TV, unhealthy diet and BMI. Bedroom TV was particularly strongly associated with a less healthy diet, perhaps because the child is snacking in the bedroom.

“Our study suggests that parent practices relating to how and where children eat affect the quality of the child’s diet and the child’s BMI. Social inequalities in children’s diet and BMI could be improved by raising parents’ awareness of these factors and discouraging food consumption in front of a TV and encouraging a more formal, interactive dining style.”

The study, ‘Does parenting help to explain socio-economic inequalities in children’s body mass index trajectories? Longitudinal analysis using the Growing Up in Scotland Study’, is published in Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. The work was funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Scottish Government Chief Scientist Office.

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First published: 11 April 2016

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