Understanding a Child's Eating Habits

Obesity and Children

If you do not overfeed your child as an infant they most likely will not develop the tendency later in life.
If you do not overfeed your child as an infant they most likely will not develop the tendency later in life.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

Overeating and overweight often begin during infancy. Obesity results when more calories are consumed than are needed for growth, when the choice of foods is poor, and when the activity level does not require the caloric intake to be as high as it is. Obesity tends to run in families. Children with one obese parent have a 40 percent risk of becoming obese, while children with two obese parents have an 80 percent risk of becoming obese.

You can start right after your baby's birth to prevent overfeeding and obesity. If you bottle-feed your baby, let him decide when he is finished with each bottle instead of encouraging him to empty it. Starting solid foods too soon, before your baby is four to six months of age, can lead to excessive weight gain. As your child grows older, let him eat to satisfy his natural appetite. Your baby's doctor can tell you if your baby's weight gain is too much for his height.

If overweight or obesity does become a problem, you can take measures to slow the rate of your baby's weight gain. He should not actually lose weight; rather, you should help him get his weight in proportion to his height while still ensuring he gets the nutrients and calories he needs for growth and development. Once again, your baby's doctor can tell you how to do this.

You can help by taking the following steps:

  • Be sensitive to cues that he is full. He may pucker his face, pull back from the table or bottle, turn his head away, dawdle, spit out his food, or begin to play with it. These are all signs he is finished eating.
  • Milk is your child's most important food. Water is generally necessary only as an additional fluid (for example, on very hot days). Juice is not a substitute for milk.
  • Limit or eliminate high-calorie and high-fat foods. Fresh fruit makes a tasty substitute for a cookie. Avoid sauces and gravies, which provide a lot of calories and limited nourishment. Broil or steam foods rather than frying them. Limit the use of butter, margarine, and mayonnaise.
  • Give your child fresh fruit instead of canned fruit or fruit juice. Fresh fruit has fewer calories. If fresh fruit is not available, offer fruit packed in water or fruit juice. Limit fruit juice to four ounces daily.
  • Provide your baby with lots of opportunities to exercise. As you play with your baby, give him a chance to move his body as he interacts with you. As he grows older, give him space to run and opportunities to walk. He is more likely to exercise if you are involved with him.
  • If you prepare your own baby food, make it less dense in calories: Do not add sugar, margarine, or butter. Take all fat off meat before cooking.
  • Remember that babies cry and fuss for reasons other than hunger. If your baby has just been fed, try other methods of soothing him before again offering the breast or bottle. Try walking or rocking him. Maybe he just needs to suck. Let him suck on your finger, his finger, or a pacifier. Perhaps he is bored and needs a new position or toy or change of room.
  • Offer nonfood rewards for achievement or good behavior. It is tempting to give candy or a cookie for an accomplishment or an ice cream cone for good behavior, but the overweight child needs other rewards. Your verbal expressions of pleasure and hugs are wonderful rewards. For special accomplishments, a book or toy might be in order. You will probably need to enlist the support of other important adults, such as grandparents and babysitters, in this approach.

A word of caution: Let your baby's doctor decide if your baby is overweight or obese. The doctor can follow your baby's growth on growth charts and can tell you if you need to be concerned. Do not decide your baby is overweight because of the way he looks or because someone tells you he looks fat.

Most babies have a cherubic appearance. They do not look like lean mini-adults. Your baby or toddler will have a rounded abdomen. He may appear to have no neck and may have a double chin and dimpled skin. Despite his appearance, he may be just right for his height. Since good nutrition is so important to the development of your child's brain and his general growth in the first two years, restricting calories and nutrition unwisely may have a poor effect on his development. Children do change in appearance over the years, and the baby you thought was so round may become a lean toddler or preschooler.

While eating too much of the wrong foods can be a health hazard, a child who refuses to eat can be a real frustration. In the next section, we will learn how to deal with a child who is a fussy eater.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.