NEW YORK: Fathers who get more involved in raising their children may be helping to lower their kids’ risk of obesity, a U.S. study suggests.
For the study, researchers examined how often fathers of young children participated in parenting activities like caregiving, making meals and playing outside and how much they weighed in on decisions related to nutrition, health and discipline when their kids were 2 and 4 years old.
By age 4, kids were 30 percent less likely to be obese if their fathers increased the amount of time they spent taking children outside for walks and play, compared to those whose dads remained more hands-off or even reduced their involvement between their kids’ second and fourth birthdays.
Each additional daily caregiving task fathers handled – such as help with getting dressed, baths, brushing teeth and bedtime routines – was associated with an additional 33 percent reduction in their child’s odds of becoming obese, the study found.
“It is possible that when fathers are more involved, the total amount of time both parents dedicate to child caregiving increases – it’s not just the mother providing care but the father as well,” said lead study author Michelle Wong of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.
“When both parents are more involved, the quality of care might also increase,” Wong said by email.
About 9 percent of U.S. kids aged 2 to 5 are obese, as are about 18 percent of youth aged 6 to 11, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To assess the influence fathers might have on the risk of obesity early in childhood, researchers examined data from a nationally representative group of about 10,700 children born in 2001 who were followed until first grade, when kids are typically 6 to 7 years old.
All of the fathers lived at home with their kids in two-parent households but were not the primary caregivers. On average, fathers worked about 46 hours a week and mothers worked about 18 hours a week.
From ages 2 to 4, the proportion of children who were overweight decreased from about 14 percent to 8 percent. Over that same period, the proportion of kids who were obese declined from about 6 percent to 4 percent.
About one-quarter of fathers increased the amount of time they put into caregiving tasks and play time during the study period, while 30-40 percent decreased the amount of time they spent on these activities.
Even though some fathers got more involved in decision-making during the study, this didn’t appear to influence kids’ odds of obesity.
The study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how fathers’ involvement with kids directly impacts children’s’ odds of obesity.
Other limitations include its reliance on fathers to accurately recall and report how much they did with their kids, the authors note in Obesity. Because the study only included two-parent households, the findings also might not apply to children living with only one caregiver.
“So, this study is telling us that when both parents are in the home, and regardless of how many hours each works outside the home, when fathers are more involved in caregiving responsibilities children are less likely to be obese,” Dr. Julie Lumeng, a researcher at the University of Michigan CS Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.
Fathers’ involvement in playtime may have many benefits for kids, noted Philip Morgan, a researcher at the University of Newcastle in Australia who wasn’t involved in the study.
“When fathers take children outside to play, they both experience the benefits of physical activity, which reduces the risk of obesity,” Morgan said by email. “Indeed, being outside is beneficial as this form of leisure time activity usually displaces alternative unhealthy behaviors such as sitting in front of screens and/or eating poor quality foods.”
This doesn’t mean mothers or other adults can’t provide the same opportunity, however, said Dr. Stephen Daniels of the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver, who wasn’t involved in the study.
“Parents should be a team to ensure that kids get the proper diet and the best opportunities to be outdoors and engage in physical activity,” Daniels said by email. “However, it is important to emphasize that good lifestyle can also be developed in single parent families. Dads can clearly be helpful, especially in the area of physical activity, but this can also happen in other ways with other adult role models.”