In contrast to ParentCorps, another program hoping to slow down weight gain in at-risk families takes a different approach. The home-based “Healthy Habits, Happy Homes” was initiated by Massachusetts General Hospital, and the families involved were not told that the researchers’ aim was to observe the effect on children’s weight over a six-month period.
The study recruited 121 low-income, minority families from four community health centers in the state. What they all had in common was a child between two and five years old who slept in a room with a TV.
The families were randomly divided into two groups, and everybody had an in-home visit from research assistants who weighed and measured the kids, filled out survey questions about their normal routines, and noted other pertinent aspects of the environment.
After that, the treatment was different. The control group families were just sent educational material on early childhood development every month. The intervention group got more attention, in the form of encouragement to have regular family meals, limit screen time, make sure children got adequate sleep, and most importantly, to take the TVs out of the bedrooms.
Concepts such as role modeling and limit setting were promoted. The report says,
Interventions were delivered in four home visits that addressed project goals and checked in on progress, monthly coaching phone calls, and frequent text messages to encourage healthy practices. Mailings included newsletters for the parents and, for the children, toys focused on the program goals — such as stickers, coloring books, a copy of Good Night Moon for bedtime reading, and toys for active play.
So, how did it all turn out? At the six-month mark, the intervention group kids were getting the benefit of about 45 minutes more sleep. Although both groups experienced a slight dip in weekday TV exposure, the intervention group’s weekend television viewing time had dropped, while the weekend screen time of the control group increased.
Probably because of the overcrowding that accompanies poverty, about 80 percent of the parents shared their bedrooms with kids, so most television sets were not actually removed from those bedrooms. Still, “At the end of the study period, the body mass index of children in the intervention group dropped an average of 0.18, while it rose 0.21 in the control group.” It may not seem like much, but at that crucial age, every little bit helps.
One of the remaining questions, which is applicable to the hopes of many programs, is how large of a “dose” of intervention is needed to make a difference. How often do visits need to be made, to achieve the desired effect? Would a phone call be as useful as a visit? All these things cost time, money, and effort, and by minimizing the amount spent on any one family, a program is obviously able to extend its benefits to more families.
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