Childhood obesity prevention starts too late!
Baby fat is cute—and mostly normal—in the early years. By toddlerhood, most of that baby fat melts away. But for a number of young children, the weight doesn’t disappear. In fact, it accumulates. Why is this? I think it has to do with early feeding, including what young children eat and how parents feed them.
Did you know that 8 percent of infants under 2 years old are overweight? And 8.4 percent of preschoolers aged 2-5 years are overweight? Early feeding, from what young children eat to how they are fed, provides the foundation of eating preferences and habits later in life. Yet most obesity prevention programs and treatment efforts begin in elementary school, when these habits and food preferences are well established.
As a professional who has worked with many families, I know we are missing a big opportunity when it comes to obesity prevention. And that opportunity exists in the high chair.
Take, for example, the foods young children are eating. In infancy, more babies are getting solid food too early (before 4 months), and this is associated with a 6-fold increase in obesity risk at 3 years of age. Forty-three percent of 9-11-month-olds and 72 percent of 1-2-year-olds have one sweet food each day. Not only is this a source of extra calories, it molds the food preferences of young children to favor sweets.
The list of feeding mistakes in the first two years of life is impressive: misinterpreting crying as hunger, using sweets to reward or bribe baby to eat healthy food, giving little tastes of adult food babies shouldn’t have until much later, encouraging baby to finish the bottle or the jar of food, keeping baby on pureed food too long, and missing opportunities to connect and read baby’s fullness cues.
While it’s easy to point the finger at parents, I won’t. One of the reasons parents make these mistakes is our poor system of educating them in nutrition and feeding. Parents get the lion’s share of feeding and nutrition information during the first year of life, and this comes from their primary healthcare provider. After that, support for feeding and nutrition drops off—just when parents need it the most!
Parents get a special course on how to birth a baby with weeks of attention given to this topic. I say parents need this same attention when it comes to nutrition and feeding, focusing on what and how to feed kids, and the expected changes of childhood eating and growth. Labor and delivery is brief compared to a lifetime of feeding kids!
Until parents have the tools to feed their young children well, including what to eat, how to feed them, and why they behave the way they do, I don’t think we’ll make a dent in prevention of childhood obesity.
How were you educated about nutrition and feeding with your children?