Low-income children enrolled in the federally funded Head Start preschool program might experience beneficial effects on developmental and physical outcomes, including a healthier body mass index, according to research.
The study, “Changes in Body Mass Index Associated With Head Start Participation,” was published Jan. 12 on the website of the journal Pediatrics.
“The study findings suggest that participating in Head Start may be one effective strategy for obesity prevention and treatment,” lead author Julie Lumeng, MD, of the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, said in a news release.
“Head Start programming is often at risk for cuts in funding,” she said in the release. “But at the same time, policymakers are looking for programs that can reach large numbers of American children to prevent obesity. We found that Head Start participation could help — it is associated with robust, early and sustained beneficial changes in children’s BMI.”
For the study, Lumeng and colleagues studied the weights and heights of 19,023 children attending Head Start in Michigan and compared their growth with children in the same age range who were seen in doctor’s offices for checkups (the comparison group). The comparison groups included children who were receiving and not receiving Medicaid.
Findings showed preschool-age children who entered Head Start with an unhealthy weight status experienced a significantly improved and healthier BMI by kindergarten age than children in comparison groups. Children who entered Head Start underweight also experienced a greater BMI increase compared with the other groups.
Study authors also wrote that at the end of the observation period, obese or overweight Head Start children were significantly less overweight than the children in the comparison groups. The environment provided by Head Start programs may contribute to prevention of obesity, along with improved social and academic outcomes.
Head Start, a federally funded preschool program for low-income U.S. children, has been reported to have beneficial effects on developmental outcomes.
Several features of Head Start could be positively influencing children’s BMIs, according to Lumeng, who is an associate professor of pediatrics at the U-M Medical School and in the U-M School of Public Health. The federally regulated quality of meals and snacks provided at Head Start may be higher than that in many children’s homes or in other child care facilities that do not have to meet federal meal standards, according to the release.
Children may have more opportunities for physical activity and less sedentary time in Head Start than at home or in other settings, Lumeng said in the release. Head Start also might provide needed structure to children’s days that helps solidify routines and sleep patterns, both of which are associated with reduced obesity risk. The program also might reduce stress in families’ households, giving them more financial and psychological resources to create a healthy environment at home.
“The individual parent or pediatrician might consider enrolling the overweight or obese child in Head Start as part of an obesity prevention or treatment plan,” Lumeng said in the release. “For policy makers looking for programs to support in order to achieve reduced prevalence of obesity and overweight in American preschoolers, Head Start may be one such program.”