Does childcare influence health behaviours later in life?

Researchers are looking at whether non-parental childcare during the early years have an influence on children’s health behaviours later in life.

A new paper has reviewed 13 previous studies which explored the links between non-parental childcare, such as preschools, nurseries and childminders, and future health behaviours, including eight reports looking at diet, three about physical activity, three about sedentary behaviour, and one focusing on sleep.

The reviewed articles were from the United States, Australia, France, Japan, Denmark, New Zealand and the UK, and included between 34 and 18,000 people children aged between six weeks and five years at the time they attended childcare.

The team of researchers from Loughborough and Cambridge universities, in the UK, and Johns Hopkins University, in the United States, found that the limited existing evidence showed mixed results and lacked any in-depth exploration of what specific aspects of non-parental childcare may influence this relationship with diet and activity behaviours, such as the type of provider (e.g., formal or informal) and how long children attend childcare for (e.g., full- or part-time).

Researchers found “very limited evidence” suggesting that attending certain types of non-parental childcare, particularly informal providers, might be related to less breastfeeding, but the evidence regarding all other outcomes is mixed and sometimes contradictory.

Dr Silvia Costa, of the School of Sport and Exercise Health Sciences (SSEHS), said that more and high-quality research is needed to determine whether non-parental childcare affects diet, physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep in later life.

She said: “We know that the early years are a key time in life for the development and prevention of obesity, as well as for the establishment of healthy diet, sleep patterns, and physical activity habits.

“There is also a growing body of research suggesting that attending non-parental childcare is associated with increased fatness or risk of obesity in children.

“Taking into account the large number of young children who are spending an increasing amount of time in non-parental childcare, these settings represent a promising target for population-level obesity prevention and encouraging healthy habits from an early age.

“However, this review highlights that we need more research, firstly to clearly conceptualise what are the possible pathways linking non-parental childcare with diet and activity behaviours after children leave these settings, and secondly to determine whether, what aspects of, and how much exposure to such childcare might impact on these health behaviours.”

Dr Costa added: “This may require wider thinking about the whole system of non-parental childcare and use of systems thinking – increasingly recognised as valuable to public health.

“This would, in turn, help identify potential targets for interventions, policies, or regulations to help childcare settings provide healthful environments for the children in their care.”

The full paper, Relationship Between Early Childhood Non-Parental Childcare and Diet, Physical Activity, Sedentary Behaviour, and Sleep: A Systematic Review of Longitudinal Studies, was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, last month.


Notes for editors

Press release reference number: 19/222

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