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This weekend, I spent some time at the park with my two-year old daughter and two friends from my mother’s group who also have two-year olds. We're all working mothers, working both because we want to work and because we have to work – and the conversation quickly circled around to the hot topic of the moment: preschool.

As parents think about all the factors that go into choosing the right preschool for their family (price, location, hours, etc.), they shouldn't forget to consider how the preschool will reinforce nutrition and exercise habits that will last a lifetime.

I know. There are so many things to worry about when you're a parent that you really don't need people adding to the list. But when it comes to childhood obesity, it’s not just school kids and adolescents who are suffering. Our littlest ones – infants and toddlers – have seen rising obesity rates over the past few decades, too.

At the same time, child care is becoming part of daily life for more and more families in this country. Over half of all the infants and preschool-age kids in America spend, on average, almost 30 hours a week in some form of child care.

Thirty hours a week! That adds up to a lot of meals and playtime under someone else’s care. If you're a working mother, more than likely this is your reality. So how can we make sure child-care providers are working to give our kids a healthier start in life?

Child-care facilities are subject to some health-related regulations, of course, typically set by the state. But these requirements usually have to do with safety and equipment standards and caregiver qualifications, like training certification and criminal background checks. With obesity rates at epidemic levels, why shouldn’t child-care standards address nutrition and physical activity?

In fact, Congress recently called on states (by way of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010) to improve child-care licensing standards – specifically by making sure providers serve healthy meals and snacks, offer opportunities for exercise, and limit kids’ “screen time” in front of the TV and computer. These strategies are also in line with the Obama Administration’s Let’s Move campaign, working to build lifelong healthy eating and exercise habits for American kids.

Experts recommend, for example, that kids ages two and older get at least 60 to 90 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise each day. But few states have set child-care standards to that effect. A 2007 survey found that only three states – Alaska, Delaware, and Massachusetts – required a specified number of minutes of physical activity daily.

State regulations also fall short in limiting the amount of screen time for kids in child care. And many states need to step up their standards to get the meals and snacks they serve in line with the requirements of the Child and Adult Care Food Program, a federal nutrition program.

How can we change this?

For starters, states can heed Congress’ call to adopt more stringent child-care licensing standards addressing these concerns. ChangeLab Solutions, a national nonprofit organization, has created a model child-care licensing statute to help states establish and implement higher nutrition, physical activity, and screen time standards.

Cities and counties also could adopt these standards same if they have the authority to do so. If they don’t have that authority, they could pass a resolution – a formal statement supporting action on a particular issue – urging child-care providers to adopt these kids of standards instead.

In the absence of strong state or local regulations, funders supporting child-care providers – including state and local governments – could require providers to carry out higher standards as a condition for receiving funds. And child-care providers themselves, of course, could voluntarily choose to adopt these stronger standards.

I may be a working parent, but I also work very hard to make sure my daughter gets nutritious meals at home every day. (Okay, most days.) I don't want the time and effort I spend preparing good food undermined by poor nutritional choices at her preschool.  

For more about ways to improve child-care standards in your state or community, see www.changelabsolutions.org.

All photos courtesy of Lydia Daniller, courtesy of ChangeLab Solutions

This post is part of the MomsRising "Making the School Day Healthier" Blog Carnival headlined by Top Chef Lorena Garcia."


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