An educational program offered to parents and young children at community centres may provide benefits beyond its initial goal of reducing childhood obesity, according to a new University of Guelph study.

The pilot study found that parents in the Parents and Tots Together (PTT) program reported less stress and better management of their children’s general behaviour. PTT had a minimal influence on children’s body mass index (BMI).

The researchers designed the program to determine the feasibility of a large-scale intervention.

Prof. Jess Haines, seen here with her kids at home, said attendees found the Parents and Tots Together program was effective at improving management of their children’s behaviour.

Over the nine-week program, the researchers invited parents and children aged two to five to community centres for weekly dinners. After the meal, the parents discussed topics with a community worker and dietitian while their children took part in educational programming.

The parents then attempted to change their children’s behaviour during the week, including more sleep and physical activity, less screen time and fewer sugar-sweetened drinks. The program also attempted to improve parents’ feeding practices.

The researchers found most parents felt after nine months that their general parenting abilities had improved.

Changing children’s lifestyle and eating habits early in life has benefits, said senior author Prof. Jess Haines, Family Relations and Applied Nutrition.

“This age is when behaviour patterns are being formed in children; we know that kids that are overweight by the age of six will generally be overweight as teens and young adults,” she said.

“Parents are often more open to making changes when their kids are younger. In many ways, they’re looking for solutions to complex issues and wanting to discuss issues they’re facing. As children get older, it’s harder to implement changes.”

Haines said the researchers wanted to look beyond BMI alone.

“To see drastic changes in children so young would be challenging to see; we focus more on healthy behaviours,” she said.

“The potential exists for these changes to translate into improved BMI over time, as parents adjust and change their family’s lifestyle. We may see more improvements with BMI with a longer-running study.”

PhD student and lead author Kathryn Walton said concerns about their children’s weight were a low priority for most parents taking part in the PTT program.

“The primary draw for most people was about general parenting, specifically discipline and limit-setting,” she said.

“What was interesting was how many parents wanted to stay in the program for longer. Initially, nine weeks seems like a big commitment, but most wanted to keep going.”

The researchers are now considering expanding the program, including modifying it for the workplace.

Having run the program at a Guelph manufacturing company, Haines said, “We were able to get more fathers at those sessions, so that was good to see. We need to do more testing to make sure this program is effective and will help families.”

The study is published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health.