What Every New Mom Needs to Know About Infant Obesity

Everyone likes to see a chubby baby. Huge cheeks, rolls upon rolls of fat, and plenty of places to pinch and hug are part of what makes babies so lovable. But babies who are chubby to the point of obesity represent an unhealthy trend in infants known as infant obesity. This condition is anything but cute, and parents should be aware of it so that they can work to prevent their child from becoming obese. Read on to get the lowdown on babies with more than a little extra chunkiness, and find out how your pediatrician can help.

Why infant obesity is bad

Chunky babies are often a good thing. Babies need fat for certain developmental stages. But infant obesity represents a condition that goes beyond healthy baby fat and into a serious condition that can lay the foundation for an unhealthy childhood and even adulthood.

Babies who gain weight rapidly are on pace to be at risk for obesity by age 3. This means that weight gained in infancy can lead to later obesity, not just as a child, but in adulthood as well. Some research reports indicate that eating patterns established as early as three months of age can predict the likelihood of a child’s obesity later in life.

Childhood obesity is associated with a greater risk of developing high blood pressure, sleep disorders, early puberty, and diabetes. A lifetime of obesity can include not just these problems, but also issues such as joint problems, heart disease, cancer, and stroke.

Signs and symptoms of infant obesity

You may not be able to identify obesity just by looking at your child, as babies have different body frames and need varying amounts of fat for their stages of development. It’s important to visit your pediatrician regularly so that you’re able to check your baby’s BMI against growth charts for his or her age. Your pediatrician can also assess your baby’s weight based on developmental factors.

How infant obesity happens

The Mayo Clinic indicates that there are genetic and hormonal causes of infant obesity that may affect some children; however, infant obesity is most often brought on by eating too much without enough activity. That’s why it’s so important for you as a parent to be sensitive to infant obesity-because you can take steps in your lifestyle to reduce your child’s risk of gaining excessive weight.

What you can do to prevent infant obesity

Although some children may become obese on their own due to factors outside of your control, there are some things you can do to help prevent your child from becoming obese:

  • Gain a healthy amount of weight while pregnant: Studies have shown that excessive maternal weight gain is a factor for infant obesity. This includes lifestyle factors as well as untreated gestational diabetes. Be sure to get regular prenatal care that includes weight monitoring and counseling on healthy pregnancy weight gain.
  • Breastfeed: The list of benefits associated with breastfeeding is long, and healthy infant weight is one of them. Babies who are breastfed on demand without scheduled feeding times will regulate the timing and amount of breast milk that they eat to match their needs without overfeeding. On top of preventing overfeeding, this style of feeding teaches babies to trust their body’s cues, rather than counting ounces and relying on the clock. Even in cases where solid foods are introduced to breastfed babies before 4 months (a risk factor for formula-fed babies), there is little risk of obesity. If you’re unable to breastfeed, adopt a feeding pattern that is similar to breastfeeding, offering formula on demand and only feeding as much as your baby will take without coercion.
  • Learn your baby’s signals for fullness: Watch your baby carefully during mealtimes to identify the signals that he or she has had enough. Respect your baby’s tiny tummy and stop when he or she indicates fullness. Avoid the temptation to see if he or she will "just take a little more," as this can override your baby’s natural fullness instincts and make them associate feeling overstuffed with being satiated.
  • Avoid introducing solid foods too early: Harvard research indicates that formula fed infants who were fed solid food before four months of age were significantly more likely to be obese at the age of three. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends introducing solid foods between four and six months of age, and only when your baby shows signs of readiness.
  • Encourage activity: Babies are often happy to get moving on their own, but some mellow babies are content with visual stimulation alone. Practice tummy time, get on the floor with your baby, or put on music and dance together.

What you can do to treat infant obesity

What if you’re past the point of prevention and have found your baby to be obese? Talk to your doctor about what he or she recommends for your child.

Typically, pediatricians will recommend that parents encourage weight maintenance rather than weight loss, as infants can continue to grow in height and thin out without adding weight, eventually dropping their BMI to a healthier range.

Weight maintenance for infants includes eating a healthy diet without overfeeding and increasing physical activity. The changes you can make to prevent infant obesity are the same as the treatment. If you’re breastfeeding, continue to do so. Listen to your child’s cues for hunger and fullness, and encourage activity, both independently and as a family.

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