Lots of us are guilty of fawning over cute little babies with their chubby cheeks and chunky legs. But as adorable as all that extra fat may look on an infant, it’s not that cute later on, and it’s not healthy at any point. It turns out that the way we feed infants can make a big difference in their weight into toddlerhood and beyond.
A recent study that took place at Children’s Hospital Boston found that formula-fed babies who are started on solid food before they are 4 months old have a greater risk of obesity than infants started on solids between 4 and 6 months of age.1 The participants were 847 mothers with babies born between 1999 and 2002 living in eastern Massachusetts. These children were followed over a three-year period and the mothers were asked questions about whether they breastfed, if so for how long, and when solid foods were introduced into the babies’ diets.
The researchers followed up again when each child was three years old to obtain their weight and height measurements. Those with a body mass index (BMI) in the 95 percentile for their age and gender were classified as obese. Of the children who had been formula-fed exclusively from birth or whose mothers stopped nursing before they were 4 months old, one out of every four was obese when solid foods were introduced before they were 4 months old. But, for those who waited until the children were between four and five months old to introduce solids, the occurrence of obesity dropped to one out of 20.
For babies who were nursed for at least four months, on the other hand, the age of starting solid foods did not appear to make a difference in the likelihood of obesity at the age of three. Only seven percent of the breastfed babies were obese at three years old, as compared to 13 percent of the formula-fed children.
According to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about one-third of the infants in the United States are exclusively breastfed through the first three months of life. There are numerous benefits to both mother and baby from nursing and it’s unfortunate that those numbers are not much higher. Breastfeeding has been shown to lower a child’s risk for ear and respiratory infection, atopoic dermatitis, gastroenteritis, necrotizing enterocolitis, sudden infant death syndrome, and diabetes. But for those who do not, or cannot, breastfeed, this study displays the importance of not only avoiding starting solid foods too early, but also of overfeeding infants and setting them up for a lifetime of weight and health issues.
Multiple studies have shown that baby fat in kids presages obesity in adulthood and can set off a variety of health issues. A 2008 study at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, Australia, of 991 seemingly healthy children between the ages of five and 15 found that children carrying extra weight have a tendency toward enlargement of one of the chambers of the heart. This sort of abnormality presents heightened risk for heart disease, stroke, and heart arrhythmia. Another trial that took place in 2008 at Children’s Hospital in Kansas City found that obese kids as young as 10 years old have arteries as clogged as those typical of 45-year-olds.
But instead of letting things get out of control, parents need to step up and take responsibility for their kids’ weight. If your child is already overweight, the first steps are to feed him smaller portions and healthier foods and get him exercising regularly. As far as heart health goes, obviously no parents want their child starting on prescription medication at a young age.
Developing good, healthy habits and getting your kids fit will benefit them in so many ways in the long term. From infancy through adulthood, we’ve only got one body — it’s essential to start children off the right way so years later they are not physically paying the price for the mistakes we made.
1 Huh, Susanna Y.; Rifas-Shiman, Sheryl L.; Taveras, Elsie M.; Oken, Emily; Gillman, Matthew W. “Timing of Solid Food Introduction and Risk of Obesity in Preschool-Aged Children.” Pediatrics. 7 February 2011. American Academy of Pediatrics. 10 April 2011. <http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/abstract/127/3/e544?maxtoshow=&hits=10&RESULTFORMAT=&fulltext=susanna+huh&searchid=1&FIRSTINDEX=0&sortspec=date&resourcetype=HWCIT>.