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5 Ways We Program Infant Obesity


toddler eating a granola bar by Angie Garrett/Flickr

We are quick to blame food for the childhood obesity problem.

From fructose (fruit sugar) and soda, to junk food and fast food, there are a plethora of guilty foods in a child’s world. But focusing on food as the culprit is a little bit short-sighted, and neglects the powerful role of feeding.

Don’t get me wrong–I agree that many foods in today’s landscape make it hard to avoid overeating, either by virtue of quantity or quality.

After all, 85% of 2 to 3 year olds are consuming soda, desserts and packaged snacks each day, according to the Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study (FITS).

So, sure, it’s easy to point the finger at food. But don’t be misled by thinking it’s only food’s fault—food is not the whole kit and caboodle.

Many problems with over-feeding and childhood weight begin during the high chair years.

Take Suzanne, a young mother with her first child, for example.  She read as much about nutrition as possible and queried her pediatrician. But when it came time to introduce solid food to her baby James, she felt compelled to make sure he finished his meals.

She needed to know that he was getting enough to grow.

When James finished his meal or his bottle, Suzanne was at peace. But that came at a price–she had to coax James to take the last three bites of nearly every meal. And she kept encouraging him to finish his bottle, even though he gave her many signs he was done.

While Suzanne had good intentions (and her own fear driving her feeding approach), she was unintentionally teaching James how to overeat.

5 Ways Parents May be Programming Infant Weight Problems

How parents go about feeding their young child can be just as worrisome in the development of childhood weight problems.

1. Ignoring Fullness Cues

How many times have you seen a baby turn his head away, indicating he’s done eating? How many times have you followed that little mouth from left to right, trying to sneak in another bite? Or push the bottle into your baby’s mouth, just to make sure it is emptied?

What many parents don’t realize is that encouraging an extra bite or finishing the bottle is teaching baby to overeat and ignoring his sense of fullness. Babies, though unable to speak, have clear signs when they are finished eating. They pull off the bottle and look away, they bat the spoon away, or they purse their lips to show they don’t want anymore to eat.

2. Allowing Inappropriate Foods

The science tells us that babies are hard-wired to like sugar and fat when they are born; they learn to like salt at around 6 months of age. When adults offer tastes of their dessert, a little bite of cookie, a French fry, a slurp of latte, or of soda early in life, these tastes reinforce a preference for sweetness, fat and salt that may be hard to deny when older.

And when you look at the vast array of nutrients babies need during the first two years of life, coupled with a tiny tummy for holding all those nutrients, there’s not much room at all for less than nutritious food.

3. Multi-tasking and Using Feeding Aides

Jen complained that feeding her 19 month old daughter Gabby had always been hard. She’d make her meal, set her in the high chair and start in on the laundry and dishes.

Jen wanted to capitalize on her time to do other household chores. But Jen didn’t understand that feeding Gabby was a time for bonding, trust building and learning about her child.

Instead, she missed out on this opportunity and the feeding dynamic grew sour, with Gabby frustrated and alone, and Jen never really getting anything done.

The developmental job of infancy is to form an attachment with the primary caregiver.

Feeding is a perfect opportunity to do this, as it occurs multiple times throughout the day. Yet, busy parents are looking for ways to expedite the process, like propping the bottle, eating meals in the car (seat), or leaving a young toddler to eat alone.

When babies miss out on eating with a caregiver, they also miss out on learning opportunities, bonding occasions and the positive outcomes of responsive feeding.

Problems in feeding and eating can occur, such as poor appetite regulation and insecurity around food.

4. No Structure with Feeding

Once baby starts solid foods, parents want to gradually move to a structured approach, including 3 meals and multiple snacks (bottles or food) during the day at regular times.

Because of the high nutrient need, and limited stomach capacity, babies need to eat several times a day. A regular feeding structure builds predictability, routine and trust, while helping baby and young toddler get into a daily routine.

When meals are not structured, young children may become overly hungry and may overeat when food is available.

5. Rewarding with Food

Giving a young toddler a lollipop for going to the pediatrician, the bank, or getting a haircut is a form of reward-based eating.

Offering dessert as a bribe to eat vegetables is another common way parents and other adults reward kids with food.

The research is out on food rewards: it’s a big no-no.

When young children are given a treat for a certain behavior, task, or eating performance, they learn that the reward food (often a dessert) is more important than the behavior, task, or food eaten in the first place.

In the case of giving dessert for bites of vegetable, the child’s food value system shifts to favoring rewards over the healthy food.

Kids eat what they like and value, and when dessert rewards are used, you’d better believe they learn to like desserts.

What other ways do you think we program infant obesity?

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  1. What a well written article!
    I think parents need to be educated on the subject. I see a lot of cases where the parent to be blamed, unfortunately. A lot of times mothers just listen to their friends for snack ideas or follow the easy route. They get what’s socially accepted in the playground or at playdates, like goldfish crackers etc. Recently we had a playdate and I offered fruits as snacks. The kids who were visiting us for the first time complained and asked if we had real snacks. Well, that’s what we eat and that’s what we have. And I won’t buy their favorite snack options next and I am OK they never come for playdate.
    For me, as a psychologist the biggest issue is when parents use food as a reward or punishment.