New Colorado child care rules take aim at obesity

New state rules governing child care centers will ban sugary drinks, establish strict limits on screen time and mandate 60 minutes of daily physical activity for young children in full-day programs.

Public health advocates have lauded the new rules on nutrition, exercise and screen time as an important step in curbing childhood obesity.

“This is a huge win for kids,” said Jake Williams, executive director of the advocacy group Healthier Colorado. “It puts our state on a healthier path.”

Nearly 20 percent of Colorado children aged 2-4 are obese and an additional 10 percent are overweight, according to state health department statistics. The health department has made reducing childhood obesity one of its top priorities in recent years.

The State Board of Human Services approved the new rules in a 5-1 vote last Friday as part of larger update to childcare regulations. The rules will affect about 1,350 licensed child care centers around the state, though some may already be in compliance.

Gerie Grimes, the president and CEO of the HOPE Center in northeast Denver, said its current practices already meet or exceed the new requirements.

For example, full-time preschoolers there currently get about an hour and 20 minutes a day of physical activity.

But some of the new rules, like those requiring meals to meet certain federal standards, could create a burden for some centers, she said

“Especially for smaller centers that are down to the meat, it’s another layer for them.”

A long process

The new rules emerged from a lengthy revision process that began in 2010 and included feedback from hundreds of childcare providers and advocates.

In addition to new language on meals, exercise and TV time, the 66-page update touches on a wide array of topics ranging from educator credentials to the accessibility of thumbtacks. (The changes won’t affect licensed home-based child care. A rule update for that group will begin in 2016.)

The new rules around obesity prevention replace older ones that were often vague and lacked measurable goals.

For example, the old physical activity rules mandated daily outdoor play, but didn’t specify how much children should get. Similarly, the old one-sentence screen time rule required parents give approval for television or video-viewing, but didn’t set any time limits.

Once the new rules take effect on Feb. 2, Colorado will be among a relatively small number of states that have taken such steps for child care centers. Six states currently have similar rules on sugary drinks, eight have similar physical activity requirements and 21 have similar screen time provisions, according to a 2012 brief from the National Center for Child Care Quality Improvement.

While Grimes said the new rules may help a little, she’s not sure how effective they’ll be in preventing childhood obesity if there’s no parental buy-in around healthy habits at home.

“I could not tell you when they walk out of this [center] what their meal might look like,” she said.

In addition, the lack of strong physical activity rules in Colorado’s K-12 system could weaken the impact of the new early childhood rules, she said.

“If we do it here, [then] they go to kindergarten and it’s not there, then we go back to the same thing.”

Rule Rundown

The new rules related to obesity prevention will:

  • Ban sugar-sweetened beverages including soda, fruit drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks and flavored milk;
  • Allow 100% juice to be served no more than twice a week;
  • Require meals served at child care centers to meet United States Department of Agriculture requirements for the Child and Adult Care Food Program;
  • Require 60 minutes of physical activity a day for preschoolers and toddlers in full-day programs;
  • Require 30 minutes of physical activity a day for preschoolers and toddlers in programs lasting three-five hours per day;
  • Require 15 minutes of physical activity a day for preschoolers and toddlers in programs lasting less than three hours a day;
  • Ban all television or video time for children under two;
  • Allow a maximum of 30 minutes per week of screen time (television, videos, tablets and computers) for children two and over, with exceptions for special occasions;

Gauging the reaction

For the most part, there was little opposition to the new rules on nutrition, physical activity and screen time. A few providers raised objects during the pubic comment process that the meal rules represented unwarranted government intrusion.

Williams said they “prescribe a simple balance between proteins, grains, fruits and vegetables,” similar to the federal school meal program for K-12 students.

To Heather Frenz, who has an 18-month-old daughter, the new rules represent simple steps that will help kids eat better and stay more active.

“I’m just so excited that they passed,” she said.

Frenz, the former director of the Qualistar program Healthy Child Care Colorado, said many parents are in the dark about how much exercise kids get or what types of food they eat at child care. The new rules help eliminate the guesswork.

“I think this will bring some relief to parents,” she said.