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Parents need more help to assess their child's activity levels, says study

9 September 2015

Mothers who took part in a study about preschool children’s physical activity and sedentary behaviour do not feel that the government targets are relevant to their preschooler.

The study, led by researchers from the Centre for Academic Primary Care and published in the journal BMJ Open, suggests information that helps mothers make more accurate assessments of their child’s activity levels should be provided alongside the guidelines.

UK government guidelines, developed in 2011, state that children under five years who can walk unaided, should be physically active for at least three hours each day. This activity, which mainly consists of active play in this age group, can be of any intensity and spread throughout the day.

The study aimed to examine mothers’ attitudes to these guidelines; these attitudes are key to influencing physical activity and sedentary behaviour in children under five.

Researchers interviewed 24 mothers whose children were at aged between 2 and 5 years old from four areas of varying socio-economic status within Bristol.

The team found that the majority of mothers were unaware of the Government’s physical activity and sedentary behaviour guidelines for preschoolers.

Although nearly all mothers felt that their pre-schooler easily achieved the Government’s targets, they also said they did not know how to calculate how much physical activity their child did in a day. Preschool children were seen as naturally active and mothers commented that there was no more capacity from the parent or child to achieve more activity. Mothers were concerned that the guidelines could cause feelings of stress and guilt for mothers of young children if they were asked to increase physical activity or reduce sedentary behaviour in their child.

Georgina Bentley, the study’s lead researcher from the Centre for Academic Primary Care, said: “Our analysis suggests that presenting mothers with physical activity and sedentary behaviour targets is not sufficient to instigate behaviour change and further actions are needed to improve health during early childhood.

“Providing mothers with information on the how they can make a more accurate assessment of their preschool child’s activity and sedentary behaviour levels, and giving them information about the benefits of increasing activity and reduced sedentary behaviour, is likely to be more effective than providing targets alone.”

Reducing sedentary behaviour time spent in car sears and pushchairs was not seen as feasible by some mothers. While reducing screen-viewing time was seen as appropriate, most mothers were happy with the amount of time their pre-schooler watched television. Some parents admitted it was easy to lose track of how much time their child spent watching television and some used it as a ‘coping strategy’ to allow them time to undertake household chores or rest themselves.

Further information

Mothers’ perceptions of the UK physical activity and sedentary behaviour guidelines for the early years (Start Active, Stay Active): a qualitative study
Georgina F Bentley, Russell Jago, Katrina M Turner


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