Children looked after by nannies and extended family members eat more fast food and are more prone to bad nutrition habits than those cared for solely by their mothers, a survey in the region has found.
But despite more than two thirds of mothers saying they considered themselves well-informed about child nutrition, many lacked basic dietary knowledge, such as the impact a high-protein diet would have on their child, or how to treat nutritional deficiencies.
The online poll, published last week by YouGov Siraj on behalf of Pfizer Nutrition, surveyed 503 mothers of children under age seven in the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar. Of those surveyed, 153 respondents were in the UAE.
• Hidden risks of obesity lie in children's minds
• New survey highlights extent of obesity crisis
• Official concern grows over rising child obesity
• Arab nations come together to tackle teenage obesity
"We wanted to hear from mothers in this part of the world about the different factors that affect them as they do their best to provide healthy meals for their children," said Dr Mohammed Abdel Khalek, of Pfizer Nutrition. "We live in a very fast-paced society and many parents have multiple responsibilities.
"That is something that can impact on trying to provide the optimum diet for young children," added Dr Khalek, who is medical director of Pfizer Nutrition in the region.
Roughly five in six respondents (84 per cent) said they relied on between one and three others to assist them with childcare. In the UAE alone, a third of mothers said they rely on family members, and 20 per cent rely on maids or nannies.
Thirty-eight per cent of children cared for by nannies or maids ate fast food meals at least once a week, compared to only 28 per cent of children cared for by their mothers.
Dr Mohammed Miqdady, head of the paediatric gastroenterology department at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City in Abu Dhabi, said nutrition played a key role in the formative early years of child development, and impacted on achievement and cognitive functions.
"Studies have shown that healthy nutritional habits that are formed early shape a life forever - and, unfortunately, vice versa," he said.
"A healthy lifestyle early on in a child's life will prevent the child from becoming overweight or obese later, and protect from illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and so on."
He said that while children with multiple carers did enjoy advantages - such as learning how to interact with others, developing more advanced personal and social skills, and learning different cultures or languages - there were also significant disadvantages.
"If the father or grandparents or nanny have a strong understanding of nutrition, they can enhance a child's eating habits, but when a person that loves the child might want to 'spoil' the child, they may try to make the child happy by offering unhealthy snacks as treats," said Dr Miqdady.
Working mothers faced a bigger challenge in instilling healthy eating habits, said Samia Yousef, 35, a mother-of-three from Egypt.
"Their grandparents give them snacks, their dad takes them out for ice cream if I'm busy with work, the maid is always baking them cookies and cakes because she enjoys it. Kids will be kids," she said.
Mrs Yousef said she did not always have time to cook, and ordered takeaway a few times a week. "I think it's OK. They are still young and active and always running around. They will burn off whatever they eat," she said.
Dr Miqdady said parents needed to make their children aware of what was healthy by acting as a positive role model. "Parents themselves should eat healthily and lead by example, eating from all food groups, having more fruits and vegetables and dairy products on a regular basis, and less unhealthy food such as fats and carbohydrates, so children will learn how to make choices," he said.