Can a Baby Be Too Fat?
Is your infant's weight off the charts? Overfeeding may be to blame.
Those pinchable, cherubic cheeks. Those chunky little legs. Those pudgy, kissable fingers.
When it comes to chubby babies, there’s certainly more to love…but is there more to worry about too?
September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, so we asked two experts to weigh in, so to speak, on the issue of hefty babies: Dr. Christopher Bolling, a member of the Executive Committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Obesity, and dietician Maryann Jacobsen, the co-author of “Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School.”
First things first: Can babies ever be considered overweight or obese?
The CDC defines overweight as being at or above the 95th percentile of weight-for-recumbent length on sex-specific infant growth charts. But both Bolling and Jacobsen say health professionals generally don’t use the words “overweight” or “obese” in describing infants.
Those terms don’t come into play, Bolling said, until a child reaches age 2. Before then, he added, “we refer to it as being a little bit out of proportion.” As many as one in ten babies, he said, can be described this way.
It’s a “touchy” subject, said Jacobsen, because “the last thing we want to do is scare parents and have them restrict” their baby’s fat intake so early in life, which can cause problems with the metabolism of fats as the child gets older.
She said that even if an infant grows at higher weight-for-length percentiles, as long as his or her growth is stable, health professionals tend not to worry. Though research shows that fast-growing babies are at increased risk of being overweight as children and adults, “most large babies will not become obese,” she said. “It’s more import to look at what and how children are being fed.”
A dramatic jump or drop in weight is what’s cause for concern, she added.
Bolling said that when does see infants “growing off the chart,” the first thing he talks to parents about are feeding cues and whether a baby is being overfed. “You shouldn’t force them to take more than they really want to eat.”
How do you know you’re overfeeding a baby? Jacobsen says to watch out for these common mistakes:
- Giving the bottle or breast at the first sign of crying instead of trying other things, like soothing the infant or changing a diaper
- Encouraging the child to finish the bottle or pushing the baby to finish the food on the plate even when he’s showing signs of being done like turning his head or batting away the spoon
- Feeding him energy-dense foods like sweets and fried foods
- Feeding the child to distract, entertain or reward behavior
- Putting the baby to bed with a bottle or adding cereal to a bottle
- Starting solids before 4 months of age
If curbing overfeeding doesn’t help, what else can you do? One of the solutions is a fun one — stay active with your child. It’s not exercise, says Bolling, it’s play! Be warned, however, that thanks to the extra pounds weighing down your butterball, “it may take a little bit of extra effort to make sure that (he is) moving around.”
Jacobsen recommends providing a variety of foods and feeding your baby on a regular schedule at a designated place, like a high chair. And allow the baby — not you — determine when he’s done eating. Encourage him to feed himself — that enhances self-regulation.
One thing you should restrict? Sugar-sweetened drinks and empty calories. Juices, Jacobsen says, should be limited to four ounces daily after baby is six months or older.
Another thing to avoid is screen time.
“We know it’s not good for infants to get them a lot of screen time early on,” Bolling said. “It primes them for more of that (sedentary activity) later.”
Bolling said he’s often able to offer reassuring advice to his patients’ parents.
“If they are following good habits with them and they are doing healthy things with them,” he said, “that weight usually does come off.”
Disclosure: The author of this piece has a heavy baby. She loves every chunky bit of him.
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