Do Hands-On Dads Have Healthier Kids?

If you’re reading this article, I’d like you to take a moment and think about your own father.  Was your father present in your life when you were small?  Did your dad change diapers and give baths and play games in the backyard?

When comparing fathers of the past and present-day dads, it’s clear that fathers today take a much more hands-on role in the lives of their children and in management of their homes.  With so many mothers working outside the home, dads have more responsibility for meals and child care and household tasks.

Do these changes have an impact on their children’s health?  Do hands-on dads have healthier kids?  New research suggests that yes, they do.  As reported at Obesity Week, in at least one very important measurement, kids whose fathers are involved in their day-to-day lives ARE healthier than children whose fathers are absent or stick to a more traditional fatherly role.

There is an enormous study called the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Birth Cohort which investigated all sorts of social, economical, health and educational parameters of 14,000 American children born in 2001.  Researchers looked at surveys filled out by the fathers of children in the cohort and found an interesting correlation.  (This research specifically looked at fathers who lived in the same household with their children.)

When dads were physically involved in the care of their babies, toddlers and preschoolers, the children were less likely to be obese.  Physical involvement means that fathers changed diapers, bathed and dressed and fed their children.  They were hands-on with their kids!  Dads being more involved with meal preparation was also correlated with lower risk of obesity.

No one really knows what the basis of this correlation is.  It is possible that households with hands-on fathers are more stable and, therefore, happier places to grow up.  15% of the homes studied were below the poverty line.  Fathers worked an average of 46 hours per week and mothers worked an average of 18 hours per week.

It has been thought that dads’ role in the prevention of obesity was limited to encouraging physical activity.  Getting kids involved in sports and encouraging their efforts was thought to be in the father’s sphere.  However, this new research suggests that fathers’ opportunity to promote health in their children may extend to menu planning and meal preparation and the deeper bonding that happens when a dad participates in the nitty-gritty tasks of raising a child.

As a doctor, this research has made me rethink the questions I ask about a child’s father at well-child visits.  In the vast majority of cases the child’s mother brings him or her to the doctor for a checkup.  I will need to be more curious about Dad’s role in taking care of the child, and encourage a more hands-on role for him.

If you have a small child or children at home, whether you are Mom or Dad, please think about the typical tasks you and your partner take on.  Do you split jobs on traditional gender lines?  Or do you switch off?  Taking turns with diapers, baths, dressing and mealtimes will allow deep bonds to grow between a small child and BOTH parents.

Deep and stable bonds with both parents make for happier kids.  It’s interesting that they may make for healthier kids as well.


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