The Center for Eating Disorders Blog

Baby Steps in the Wrong Direction? Increased Anxiety About Weight in the Very Young Child

Have we as a country gone too far in conjuring up a fear of fat?  Most eating disorder specialists and body image advocates would say we hit that milestone long ago – the proof being in our country’s continued and desperate reliance on dieting despite its 95-98% failure rate.  However, recent research seems to suggest a new low – one that we are concerned may spike unnecessary anxiety in new parents and could further distort our country’s relationship with food and eating, beginning with our youngest and most fragile generations.  That being said, we felt it was important to address this topic within our Nurture blog series.

This relatively new research, out of Eastern Virginia Medical School, proposes that a progression toward obesity begins as early as three months old.  Researchers have referred to their findings as a “tipping point”, suggesting we further scrutinize weight during the earliest months of life.  The study’s online abstract states, “that the critical period for preventing childhood obesity in this subset of identified patients is during the first 2 years of life and for many by 3 months of age.”

This raises a lot of serious concerns about how we might be encouraged to interpret these results.  Should worried parents or concerned childcare providers cut down on or restrict breast milk and formula out of fear for an infant’s future weight category?  Will parents of healthy, naturally larger babies be inclined to panic during weigh-ins at the pediatrician’s office or be made to feel they need to enforce low calorie diets to help their baby or toddler lose weight?  Not only do these things not work to prevent children from becoming overweight, they are also incredibly dangerous and can disturb a young body’s natural hunger and fullness cues, setting the groundwork for a harmful relationship with food later in life. The same disruption can happen when infants or children are persuaded to eat when not hungry or made to eat significantly past the point of fullness.  Ellyn Satter, a family therapist, registered dietitian and internationally recognized authority on eating and feeding speaks to this process on her website, stating,

“Children who eat and grow at the extremes make their parents so nervous that they often interfere. It backfires. In our weight-obsessed culture, parents may try to restrict a robust child with a hearty appetite because they assume that enjoying food and eating a lot means she will get fat. It doesn’t, and it doesn’t work. Children who don’t get enough to eat—or fear they won’t—become preoccupied with food and tend to overeat when they get a chance…

…Pressure on children’s eating always backfires. Trying to get a child to eat more than she wants makes her eat less. Trying to get her to eat less than she wants makes her eat more.”

Understanding the paradoxical outcome of restricting early feedings leads us to question the messages sent by this research study as well as those introduced by most childhood obesity prevention campaigns today.  As a country, we should pause and ask ourselves if increasing anxiety about infant and childhood weight might be hurting more than it is helping?  Promoting an even earlier vigilance and stigma around weight and bodies seems only to be muddying the water further, adding to the very “problem” that studies such as this one seem to be trying to address.

Negative messages about food and weight passed from our culture to our infants and children can lead to strained feeding and food relationships, a diet mentality, low self-esteem and negative body image.  All of these things are also risk factors for the development of disordered eating and eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder which is the most prevalent and is often associated with obesity.  For most adults concerned about a child’s weight or well being, the obvious next question would be, “well than what am I supposed to do?”

Consider moving away from a hyper-focus on weight, body type, BMI or any other calculator of weight. Like most efforts involved in parenting, it’s not an easy task to accomplish particularly when it seems like every newspaper article, concerned relative, or public service campaign is telling you to do the opposite.  Do your best to focus instead on your child’s overall health (remembering that weight does not = health).  Honor and accept your child’s natural body size and shape.  Create positive goals around eating that involve paying attention to your baby’s or child’s internal hunger and fullness cues instead of relying on external messages about how much is “too much”.  Positive goals might also include taking steps to decrease the stress related to feeding a family by learning about and adopting Satter’s Division of Responsibility (DOR) in feeding which can be utilized from the earliest stages of infancy throughout adolescence. As  stated on EllynSatter.com, our goals as parents and as a culture with regards to feeding should be to:

“emphasize competency rather than deficiency: providing rather than depriving: and trust rather than control.” *

We would add that providing education rather than stigma; positive goals rather than “tipping points”: and fostering tools rather than anxiety will go a long way in helping to nurture a culture that cares more about health and less about size.

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*Quotes are copyright © 2010 by Ellyn Satter. Published at www.EllynSatter.com. For more about raising children who eat as much as they need and get bodies that are right for them (and for research backing up this advice), see Ellyn Satter’s Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming, Kelcy Press, 2005. Also see www.EllynSatter.com/shopping to purchase books and to review other resources.

photo courtesy of  pediatrics.about.com

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