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What is Baby Fat and What is Not?

Julie Paul, MS, RD, CDE, is a registered dietitian with WakeMed Children’s Diabetes and Endocrinology

Childhood obesity is an epidemic in America, and a recent study showed that the path to obesity can begin before age two.  But, as parents how do we know what baby fat is cute and what pudge is a sign of things to come?

People learn as infants how to feed, how to understand hunger signals, and how to know what to do when they are hungry.  This is why parents need to be especially in tune, interpreting a hungry cry from one that says my teeth are hurting.  If a baby is fed every time they cry, they may interpret eating with comfort – a dangerous correlation that can lead to obesity. Additionally, if breastfeeding is an option, it is a good choice to help prevent obesity because breastfed babies learn to eat by following their hunger and satiety cues instead of being fed a certain amount of a sweeter-tasting formula.

Even at your child’s very first doctor’s appointments, your pediatrician is tracking your child’s growth and comparing their height and weight to the general population.  When weight jumps up or falls off drastically, or if the child is trending well above or below the growth curve then that is when weight for a child under the age of two becomes a concern.

If you and your pediatrician determine that overweight might be an issue for your child even small changes in diet can make a huge difference.

  • Make sure to give you child foods high in nutrition and fiber, so a child can get what they need to grow and feel full.  This requires avoiding highly processed foods that are not as satisfying.
  • Cut back on milk fat by serving 2 percent after age 1, and dropping to 1 percent or skim after age 2.
  • It is important to make sure feedings are no more frequent than 3 hours apart.
  • An older child will need about 3 meals and 3 snacks. Never force a clean plate or make a child finish a bottle.
  • Provide healthy meals and avoid sugary snacks, drinks and candy. A child who is exposed at a young age to healthy foods will grow up eating healthy foods more often.
  • Sugary drinks, candy and snacks pack in the calories with little satisfaction. Eating and drinking lots of sugar is a sure way to increase your weight.

There is also some concern that lack of sleep in children is one of the major contributors of obesity. We know there is a link in adults, but it has not been studied much in kids.  Regardless, we know that good sleep habits are important for everybody for a variety of reasons.

Of course, starting from the very beginning of life is the best way to prevent obesity in children. A healthy pregnancy is essential. Excessive weight gain during pregnancy, untreated gestational diabetes and smoking during pregnancy are risk factors for early childhood obesity.

Update 6/16/2010.

Mead Johnson recently introduced new drinks developed for toddlers that is chocolate or vanilla flavored.  You can also read a Los Angeles Times article about the formula here.

Parents, please keep in mind that introducing sugary foods early is a dangerous habit. Kids have sensitive taste buds and if you sweeten things for them all the time that becomes their expectation. It is best to give kids a variety of foods and continue to expose them new foods so they can learn to try new things and enjoy different flavors.

Giving a supplement drink to provide nutrients also makes some parents less concerned about the child’s nutrient value intake because they are getting their vitamins from the supplement. And remember that as parents, we are educating our kids about nutrition every time we serve them a meal or snack.


3 thoughts to “What is Baby Fat and What is Not?”

  1. This seems like information that should be part of the prenatil care that an expecting couple should recieve during the 9 months along with any other care/information/birth trainning they would recieve.

  2. Chris-

    Thank you for your comment, and your interest in this topic. It Is becoming more and more clear that being at a healthy weight before you get pregnant and while you are pregnant matters. The food choices you make while you are pregnant are shaping your baby’s life and health. Of course, nutrition is discussed when mother’s receive prenatal care, but not in the context of preventing childhood obesity. All the more reason why prevention is so important.


  3. I really enjoyed this article. They are words to live by. I only wish my family were more educated while raising me. I am an adult after a life time of poor nutritional diet. I had stretch marks all over my body before I was even 13. After they did everything wrong, I am left with nearly irreversible consequences, physical and emotional. I support teaching kids how to have an active lifestyle and a balanced meal.

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