Summary It has been observed that obese children receive genetic and environmental effects that are associated with them being overweight. With regard to the latter, lifestyles such as eating habits and physical activity have been focused on. In the present study, the social characteristics which would dominate their lifestyles were investigated as background variables. For this purpose, 9668 Japanese children aged three years who were all born in Toyama prefecture, Japan, in 1998, served as birth cohort subjects. For the comparison between obese (Kaup index; mass in kg/(height in m)218) and nonobese (Kaup index 18) children, irregular snack intake, physical inactivity and reduced sleeping hours were chosen as statistically significant obesity-related lifestyle indicators for the children. For social characteristics, family construction (expanded family with grandparents/nonexpanded family), main caregiver (mother/other), attending a nursery school (yes/no) and mother’s employment (full-time worker/other) were chosen. These were significantly associated with the obesity-related lifestyles mentioned above using multiple logistic regression analysis adjusted for other variables of social characteristics as well as for gender and birth month (July–December/January–June). The two greatest population-attributable risk percentages were observed for mother as main caregiver (−36.5%) and attending a nursery school (−28.9%) for irregular snack intake. Therefore, these two social characteristics substantially reduced the number of children with irregular snack intake. On the other hand, the two social characteristics were reversed in children with reduced sleeping hours (population-attributable risk percentage of mother as main caregiver: 15.4%; attending a nursery school: 17%). In contrast with favourable effects on snack intake these social characteristics showed an adverse influence on the sleeping habits of children.