Parents often ask me when to start looking for signs that indicate they need to start being more conscientious about their child’s weight and eating habits to avoid obesity. My answer is, “Always.” That response is generally met with a perplexed look and the question, “What does that mean?”
It means that there are a number of factors that contribute to whether a child becomes obese. Some are at play before a child is even born. Others begin to take root before a child reaches six months of age – a key milestone – and after. The common theme at every stage is what habits are at play.
Habits before birth
There are three key considerations before a child is born to assess their level of risk for obesity. First, what are the eating habits of the mother and the immediate family before pregnancy? Parents need to take an honest look at what motivates their food choices, what they eat and under what circumstances they eat before a child even enters the picture. This is important because even with the best intentions, it’s unlikely that members of the family will shift their habits after a child arrives, particularly because a newborn increases demands on time and energy in the family.
If you traditionally eat on the run like stopping at fast food chains between commitments to fill your stomach with what’s convenient, you will likely do the same after a child is born. On the contrary, if you have always approached food as a source of nutrition to fuel productivity and create health with balance, healthy selections and portion sizes, that too will be a habit that will likely continue and be passed on to your child.
Second, a medical history in the family of high cholesterol, diabetes and early onset heart disease can indicate possible weight-related problems for your child.
Third, if most members of your family, particularly your immediate family, tend to be overweight, there is a good chance your child will follow the same path.
Habits in the first six months
In the 1920s, breast milk was more heavily depended upon until and often beyond the six-month mark. For the most part, breast milk provided everything a newborn needed for healthy development – protein, fat and carbohydrates. Store-bought, infant foods were not as readily available, not to mention breast milk was (and still is) more cost-effective. Some recent studies suggest that the decrease in breastfeeding since that time may be contributing to the increase in childhood diabetes and obesity.
It’s generally a mistake to introduce solid foods before the age of four to six months. Yet, there tends to be a rush toward introducing them earlier. When parents feel that tug to introduce solid foods before it’s time, they need to ask themselves what is motivating their desire. Is it because they feel pressure seeing other parents in their community do the same? Do their parents push them to do it because, back in their day, they introduced solids earlier? Or is it because, despite the fact that the child is happy, sleeping well and gaining weight, parents think their baby is still hungry? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then it’s really the parent motivating the shift, not the needs of the child. None of these is the right reason to move to solid food.
Habits for younger children
The role food plays in a child’s life takes root in their first few years of life. It’s critically important that food be positioned as a source of energy and health. Using food as a pacifier to soothe a child when they are upset is a pitfall that will establish the same habit and behavior in later years. Using food as a babysitter when a parent is occupied or as a reward for good behavior can do the same. And overfeeding a child encourages them to do the same throughout life.
As they say, old habits die hard. To mitigate the risk of obesity, parents can assess their family histories and make the necessary changes to their own routines well in advance of the child’s arrival. They also can commit to what role they want food to play in their child’s life and avoid any of the common pitfalls that prevent their child from forming a healthy relationship with food.