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Overeating learned in infancy, study suggests

May 23, 2013
Courtesy of Brigham Young University
and World Science staff

In the long run, en­cour­ag­ing a ba­by to fin­ish the last ounce in their bot­tle might do more harm than good. Though the calo­ries soon burn off, a bad hab­it re­mains, some re­searchers say.

So­ci­ol­o­gists Ben Gibbs and Re­na­ta Forste of Brig­ham Young Uni­vers­ity in Sa­lt Lake ­city found that clin­i­cal obes­ity at 24 months of age strongly traces back to in­fant feed­ing.

“If you are over­weight at age two, it puts you on a tra­jec­to­ry where you are likely to be over­weight in­to mid­dle child­hood and ad­o­les­cence and as an adult,” said Forste. “That’s a big con­cern.”

The re­search­ers an­a­lyzed da­ta from more than 8,000 fam­i­lies and found that ba­bies pre­dom­i­nantly fed for­mu­la were 2.5 times more likely to be­come obese tod­dlers than ba­bies who were breast­fed for the first six months.

But it’s not just about breastfeed­ing, Gibbs and Forste said. “There seems to be this clus­ter of in­fant feed­ing pat­terns that pro­mote child­hood obes­ity,” said Gibbs, lead au­thor of the study that ap­pears in Pe­di­at­ric Obes­ity.

Put­ting ba­bies to bed with a bot­tle was found to raise the risk of child­hood obes­ity by 36 per­cent. And in­tro­duc­ing sol­id foods too soon – be­fore four months of age – in­creased a child’s risk of obes­ity by 40 per­cent. “De­vel­op­ing this pat­tern of need­ing to eat be­fore you go to sleep, those kinds of things dis­cour­age chil­dren from mon­i­tor­ing their own eat­ing pat­terns so they can self-reg­u­late,” Forste said.

Forste said that the na­ture of breastfeed­ing lends it­self to help­ing ba­bies rec­og­nize when they feel full and should stop. But that same kind of skill can be de­vel­oped by for­mu­la-fed in­fants. “You can still do things even if you are bot­tle feed­ing to help your child learn to reg­u­late their eat­ing prac­tices and de­vel­op healthy pat­terns,” Forste said. “When a child is full and pushes away, stop! Don’t en­cour­age them to fin­ish the whole bot­tle.”

Breastfeed­ing rates are low­est in poor and less ed­u­cat­ed fam­i­lies. Sa­lly Find­ley, a pub­lic health pro­fes­sor at Co­lum­bia Uni­vers­ity, said the new study shows that in­fant feed­ing prac­tices are the pri­ma­ry rea­son that child­hood obes­ity hits hard­est be­low the pov­er­ty line.

“Bot­tle feed­ing some­how changes the feed­ing dy­nam­ic, and those who bot­tle feed, alone or mixed with some breastfeed­ing, are more likely to add ce­real or sweet­en­ers to their in­fant’s bot­tle at an early age, even be­fore feed­ing ce­real with a spoon,” said Find­ley.


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In the long run, encouraging a baby to finish the last ounce in their bottle might be doing more harm than good. Though the calories soon burn off, a bad habit remains. Sociologists Ben Gibbs and Renata Forste of Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City found that clinical obesity at 24 months of age strongly traces back to infant feeding. “If you are overweight at age two, it puts you on a trajectory where you are likely to be overweight into middle childhood and adolescence and as an adult,” said Forste. “That’s a big concern.” The researchers analyzed data from more than 8,000 families and found that babies predominantly fed formula were 2.5 times more likely to become obese toddlers than babies who were breastfed for the first six months. But the study authors argue this pattern is not just about breastfeeding. “There seems to be this cluster of infant feeding patterns that promote childhood obesity,” said Gibbs, lead author of the study that appears in Pediatric Obesity. Putting babies to bed with a bottle increased the risk of childhood obesity by 36 percent. And introducing solid foods too soon – before four months of age – increased a child’s risk of obesity by 40 percent. “Developing this pattern of needing to eat before you go to sleep, those kinds of things discourage children from monitoring their own eating patterns so they can self-regulate,” Forste said. Forste said that the nature of breastfeeding lends itself to helping babies recognize when they feel full and should stop. But that same kind of skill can be developed by formula-fed infants. “You can still do things even if you are bottle feeding to help your child learn to regulate their eating practices and develop healthy patterns,” Forste said. “When a child is full and pushes away, stop! Don’t encourage them to finish the whole bottle.” Breastfeeding rates are lowest in poor and less educated families. Sally Findley, a public health professor at Columbia University, said the new BYU study shows that infant feeding practices are the primary reason that childhood obesity hits hardest below the poverty line. “Bottle feeding somehow changes the feeding dynamic, and those who bottle feed, alone or mixed with some breastfeeding, are more likely to add cereal or sweeteners to their infant’s bottle at an early age, even before feeding cereal with a spoon,” said Findley.