Fathers who get increasingly involved in raising their children may be helping to lower the youngsters’ risk of obesity, a new study suggests.
Researchers examined how often fathers participated in parenting activities such as caregiving, making meals and playing outside, and how much they participated in decisions related to nutrition, health and discipline when the children were 2 and 4 years old.
Children were 30 percent less likely to be obese at age 4 if their fathers had increased their parenting time in the preceding two years than were those whose dads did not.
Each additional daily caregiving task that fathers handled — such as help with getting dressed, baths, brushing teeth and bedtime routines — was associated with an additional 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.
“When both parents are more involved, the quality of care might also increase,” Wong said by email.
About 9 percent of U.S. kids age 2 to 5 are obese, as are about 18 percent of those age 6 to 11, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Researchers examined data from a nationally representative group of about 10,700 children born in 2001. 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 time they put into caregiving tasks and play time during the study period, while 30 to 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 designed to prove whether or how fathers’ involvement with kids directly affects odds of obesity.
Other limitations of the study include its reliance on fathers to accurately recall and report how much they did with their children, the authors note in the journal Obesity. Because the study included only 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,” Julie Lumeng, a University of Michigan researcher who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.