"Big Baby" does not Always Equal "Healthy Baby"

According to a report by the National Academy of Sciences, plump babies and toddlers are at risk of developing into overweight children and obese adults.

It is a long held belief that a large baby equals a healthy baby, but according to a report by the National Academy of Sciences, plump babies and toddlers are at risk of developing into overweight children and obese adults.

Infants and children who are overweight suffer from several health risks, such as obesity, which is known to increase an individual’s possibility of developing diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

“A lot of conventional thinking has been that a big baby is a healthy baby,” said Leann Birch, director of the Center for Childhood Obesity Research at Pennsylvania State University, who chaired the panel made up of fourteen members that issued the 140-page report. “What’s happened over the past decade or so is that the evidence has been building that early overweight or early rapid weight gain places kids at risk for later obesity.”

According to the report, roughly 10% of children in the United States between infancy and two years of age are overweight. The circumstance worsens with older children, as 20% of children ages two to five are overweight or obese; this percentage has doubled since the 1980s.

The researchers suggested that doctors make it a part of a routine check-up to measure the weight and length of an infant, as well as calculate a toddlers’ body mass index (BMI). This step will help physicians determine whether a child is at risk for obesity and alert the parents so they can take necessary measures.

“It’s not always easy to tell. There are chubby babies who are doing fine, but there are babies who are so chubby they are at risk,” Birch reported. “Just looking at them doesn’t allow you to make that distinction.”

The academy’s Institute of Medicine recommended that parents as well as day-care and preschool employees should limit how much time young children spend watching television; they also cautioned against toddlers using electronic gadgets excessively, as these devices almost always prevent the child from receiving adequate exercise and sleep. Finally, the researchers urge parents to make sure their children eat the right foods, and in proper moderation.

The report also suggested that, among other factors, lack of sufficient sleep could be an important factor; insufficient sleep can contribute to weight gain by causing metabolic changes. Less sleep also gives children more time to snack.

“With reduced sleep you would have snacking patterns and more food intake,” said Debra Haire-Joshu, director of the obesity prevention and policy research center at Washington University, who was a member of the panel.

Infants and children, especially ones younger than the age of three, were found to be sleeping less over the past two decades. Babies up to age two should get nine to twelve hours of sleep every twenty-four hours, and those aged two to five should get eleven to thirteen hours.

Further, the researchers stated that day-care centers and preschools should be mandated to adhere to dietary guidelines when supplying food for children. The report also recommends that day care and preschool workers take steps to encourage children to be physically active throughout the day.

Children should get at least fifteen minutes of physical exercise per hour, while children aged two to five should electronic devices—such as television, computers, and mobile devices—for less than two hours a day.

Infants should also receive exercise, but their exercise generally amounts to moving around, crawling and such while being monitored by adults. The report recommends that cribs, car seats and highchairs be used only for their intended purposes; strollers, swings, and bouncing chairs should be used mindfully.

The final recommendation of the report was to encourage health-care providers to promote more breast-feeding among women, as this one act has been shown to reduce the risk for becoming overweight. Despite this fact, however, only 13% of mothers breast-feed exclusively for six months after birth.

The report was welcomed by many obesity and childhood development experts, but others were uncertain of the conclusion the report had reached.

“It is well established in the relevant literature that the vast majority of so-called ‘fat’ kids do not become fat adults. Similarly, most ‘fat’ adults were not fat kids,” said Patrick Basham, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. “So we need to calm down, rather than panic, about our children’s weight.”

Basham reported that he was concerned about the impact of focusing so closely on a child’s weight.

“The focus from a very young age on the need for a child to ‘not be fat’ serves only to increase the already-vast number of young people suffering from eating disorders,” he stated.