Childhood obesity is a growing concern in the U.S., but thanks to focused attention on the issue, the obesity rate is slowly declining among younger children.

According to the , obesity among children aged two to four decreased slightly from 15.2 percent in 2003 to 14.9 percent in 2010. Overall, about 17 percent of all children in the U.S. are obese.

New research from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has pinpointed three parental behaviors that can contribute to childhood obesity:

  •       inadequate sleep
  •       a mother or father who is obese
  •       restricting a child's diet in an effort to control weight

“What's exciting here is that these risk factors are malleable and provide a road map for developing interventions that can lead to a possible reduction in children's weight status,” researcher Brent McBride, a professor of human development and director of the university's Child Development Laboratory, said in a statement.

Researchers settled on these three factors after analyzing the results of a survey given to 329 parent-child groupings from child-care programs in the University of Illinois' Synergistic Theory and Research on Obesity and Nutrition Group (STRONG) Kids Program. 

Researchers used data on demographics, child and parent health histories, and feeding practices, along with home visits to those involved. Their findings were featured in the journal Childhood Obesity.

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Restricting a Child’s Food Intake Can Backfire

The most surprising of the three obesity risk factors may be the effects of food restrictions. While restricting a child’s access to certain foods may seem like a good idea, researchers say it will only make children want the food more.

“If kids have never had a chance to eat potato chips regularly, they may overeat them when the food appears at a friend's picnic,” McBride said.

Researchers said that instead of restricting foods, parents should include a wide array of healthy choices, including fruits and vegetables.

“And remember that it takes a certain number of exposures to a food before a child will try it, let alone like it, so you have to offer it to them over and over and over again,” McBride said. “And they have to see you eat it over and over.”

Other simple food related tips from the researchers include:

  •       DON’T use food to comfort a hurt or disappointed child.
  •       DON’T pre-plate meals at the counter as it can discourage self-regulation.
  •       DO allow your preschoolers to select foods as they’re passed at family-style meals
  •       DO encourage all your children to be mindful about what they eat

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Parents Who Lose Weight Have Kids Who Lose Weight

Every parent knows the old saying “monkey see, monkey do,” and it has a ring of truth to it.

It should come as no surprise that the parents of obese children are often obese themselves. Genetics is a risk factor for obesity, but with the right changes in the home, parents can help their children form healthier habits.

And as researchers have noted, it all starts with mom and dad.

Dipti A. Dev, a researcher and child behaviors specialist at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said that because a child’s food preferences are established during the preschool years, parents should recognize how their own diets can affect their children's.

“If you, as an adult, live in a food environment that allows you to maintain an elevated weight, remember that your child lives in that environment too,” she said. “Similarly, if you are a sedentary adult, you may be passing on a preference for television watching and computer games instead of playing chasing games with your preschooler or playing in the park.”

Encourage an Early Bedtime

Researchers also found that children who don't get enough sleep are more likely to be obese, which is why they encourage earlier bedtimes for overweight children.

Previous research from the University of California, Berkeley found that people who are sleep-deprived are more likely to crave high-calorie foods, which is one reason why children should get the appropriate amount of sleep each night.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, toddlers need 12 to 14 hours of sleep a day, preschoolers need 11 to 13 hours, and school-age children need 10 to 11 hours.  

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