- An ongoing study is one of the first to explore how mother-infant interaction during feeding and active play influences infant and child obesity.
- Researchers found that mothers who showed less emotional warmth during interactions with their infant had children who gained excess weight the fastest.
- More research is needed, but experts say there are other clear steps people can take to help decrease the risk of their child’s obesity.
The harmful effects that obesity can have on children’s health are well known.
An ongoing State University of New York at Buffalo study recently published in the journal Obesity is one of the first to explore how mother-infant interaction during feeding and active play influences infant and child obesity.
Researchers wanted to find out if parenting style could reduce the risk of obesity in children already at risk due to prenatal exposure to harmful substances. They found that that mothers who showed less emotional warmth during non-feeding-related interactions, like active play when the child was 7 months old, had children who gained excess weight the fastest.
This is one of the first studies to look at how familial interactions may affect a child’s appetite and diet.
“To our knowledge, there are no studies that examine how non-food, home environment throughout early child development can impact one’s motivation to eat,” Kai Ling Kong, PhD, co-author of the study and assistant professor of pediatrics in the division of behavioral health in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Buffalo, told Healthline.
The number of children with overweight in the United States has increased dramatically. About 10 percent of 4- and 5-year-olds have overweight. This is double the number from just 20 years ago, according to the New York State Department of Health.
Children with obesity “are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure and high cholesterol; things we would normally associate with adults,” said Dr. Richard Seidman, pediatrician and chief medical officer of L.A. Care Health Plan. “These kids also have an increased risk of breathing and joint problems, not to mention the psychological and self-esteem issue.”
In order to see how parental interactions with children affected their weight, Kong and the team focused on infants whose mothers had smoked, drank, or engaged in other substance misuse, such as marijuana or cocaine, during pregnancy.
Prenatal exposure to any of these substances can subject a fetus to poor nutrition and inadequate blood or oxygen flow that may cause metabolic issues that increase the risk of childhood obesity.
Roughly 40 percent of the children in the study were classified as obese at 7 years old. This is almost double the national childhood
Researchers found that mothers who showed less emotional warmth during interactions like active play when the child was an infant had children who were likely to gain excess weight the fastest.
The researchers emphasize that finding ways to promote active play might be a new and promising way to prevent obesity in high-risk infants. Helping parents learn how to interact positively with a child may help them decrease their risk for having obesity.
“A high quality of parenting or parent-child relationship is an aspect of an enriched environment, as robust evidence demonstrates the benefits of high-quality and frequent social interaction on infant cognitive development,” Kong said. “An enriched home environment provides many activities that are alternative to food, and as such, children need not find pleasure in food alone.”
What about older children? Experts say simple dietary changes can yield big benefits.
“Limit sugary drinks. Look at nutrition labels of juices that your children are drinking, as most apple juice and orange juice is full of sugar. Kids also don’t need sports drinks; there is a lot of sugar in most of them. Focus on the basics when it comes to drinks such as water and milk,” Lucie Smith, MS, RCEP, exercise physiologist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, told Healthline.
Smith said there are six specific actions parents can take to maintain children’s weight at healthy levels:
- Monitor what your children are eating to prevent unhealthy weight gain. She advises asking what they had for lunch at the school and making sure they have a nutritious breakfast every day.
- Focus on fruits and veggies, and encourage your kids to try new things.
- Exposure to healthy foods is important. Don’t give up after just one try. The more a child is exposed to something, the better the chance they might try it or even enjoy it later.
- Limit the amount of fast food your family is eating each week, and try to meal prep for the week if you know you’re going to be busy.
- Make sure you have healthy options available at home and at eye level in the refrigerator. Also, you can simply avoid keeping unhealthy options in the kitchen.
- Parents should encourage increased physical activity by participating in physical activities with them.
“With so much technology, it’s hard for kids to know what to do in order to be active. Give kids some ideas on how to be active and lead by example. Find an activity the family can do together that incorporates activity or movement.”
She explained if a child isn’t skilled enough to be on a sports team, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t avoid it completely. They can still enjoy shooting hoops in the driveway and being active with friends. “Focus on all aspects of development and growth, not just sport teams. Children can try riding bikes, swimming, and other outdoor activities that can carry into adulthood.”
“They should get at least an hour a day of physical activity. Reduce screen time and get kids up and moving,” she said.
A new study finds that emotional warmth during active play can significantly reduce the risk of childhood obesity in babies with prenatal exposure to harmful substances that can cause metabolic and hormonal issues.
Researchers believe encouraging caregivers to have more active play time with babies before their first birthday is a new way to reduce the risk of unhealthy weight gain.
Experts say it’s important to use both dietary interventions and increased physical activity to keep your child at a healthy weight for their body size.