Talking with family at mealtime may mean better health for kids with asthma

Families who eat dinner at home together tend to have more nourishing meals, but there may be other health benefits as well. A study finds that having quality family interactions at mealtime was linked with better overall health for children with asthma.

Family meals were recorded via video for 200 families with children age 5 to 12 who had persistent asthma. Researchers noted how the families spent their time together and found most time was spent either in activity (talking on the phone, watching television) or communication (parents showing interest in what their children did during the day, talking about the events of the day).

Those positive interactions were associated with less severe asthma symptoms in the children, a higher quality of life for them, and a more faithful adherence to their medical regimen. When mealtimes had more distractions, children's asthma symptoms were more severe.

The researchers said that although the average mealtime was just 18.7 minutes long, those quick get-togethers could have profound effects on a child's health: "Of course, it is not possible to effectively communicate about personal events of the day if attention is turned to the television or catching up with a best friend on a cellphone," the authors wrote. "In terms of asthma symptoms and medical adherence, it may be that mealtime conversations afford one opportunity to observe wheezing, coughing, and to check in on whether the child has taken his or her medication that day."

Researchers found that socioeconomic and demographic factors had an impact on children's health as well. Families with primary caregivers who were single, less educated, or Latino or non-white had mealtimes heavier on activity and lighter on communication.

Study co-author Barbara H. Fiese, director of the Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, offered this advice in a news release: "Communication is by far the most important ingredient. The average family meal takes 18 minutes, and I'd allot about two minutes to action, four minutes to behavior control, and 12 minutes to positive communication that affirms kids' importance, helps them resolve troublesome issues, and reminds them to take their medicine or write a thank-you note."

The study appears in the January-February issue of the journal Child Development.

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